Practical Tips for Staying Student-Centered

We use the term student-centered in instructional design all the time. And that’s good. We obviously want our eLearning to focus on the students and their needs. Sometimes, it can be tricky to do that though, particularly when we let our own knowledge and expertise cloud our understanding of the problem. Just because we think something is clear doesn’t mean it’s understandable for everyone.

Experts Were Once Novices

I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day, talking about the difficulties of teaching technology skills to certain populations. That conversation reminded me of something that is incredibly easy to forget when we’re designing our courses.

As experts, we (pretty universally) forget how difficult it is to learn [The Thing]. While we see this when we work with our subject matter experts (SME), it’s easy for us to miss our own assumptions.

When we’ve mastered a skill, or intuitively understand how something works, it’s easy to get frustrated when someone else can’t figure it out. “IT’S SO SIMPLE!” we shout in our inner monologues, while staring over the user’s shoulder in frustration. “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GET IT!”

Our institution uses Blackboard as our learning management system (LMS), and so our team has a pretty strong comfort level with the tool and all its associated bits and bobs. We know how to navigate the system, so we don’t always immediately see the pain points and issues faculty and students face.

So, how do you fight this tendency to gloss over the pains of a novice? Here are three primary ways to force yourself to remain ‘Learner-Centered’ as an instructional designer (ID).


We must, wherever possible, try to position ourselves to get meaningful feedback—from as many levels of the user experience as possible.

Sometimes this can be incredibly challenging. While your students may provide feedback to the instructor, it gets filtered through the lens of the instructor before it even gets to your ID team. Instructors don’t always know the information or even the lingo for you to help the learner.

Also, if your instructors have the ability to modify/edit courses on the fly, they may just fix an issue and never think to escalate it to the designer to integrate the change into future course runs.

Obviously, the instructor feedback shouldn’t be ignored (after all, it can be vital to improving the course), but try to design in such a way that you can get feedback from your students as well.

Keep Learning

As the years between our education and current work experience grow wider, it’s also important to not forget how it feels or what it means to be a learner. Learning new things keeps your understanding of the student experience relevant. Try picking up skills that might be outside your wheelhouse so you can get a sense of what it may be like for a newcomer in your course. Put yourself in the position of a novice, so you can empathize with others who are in the same position.

Plus, you get to always be learning something new, which maybe you can take into your next course design.

Be Practical

It’s easy for students to get lost in the weeds of the current ‘Theory of the Month’. After learning acronyms, memorizing processes, and dealing with abstractions, your learners can only take so much before their eyes start to glaze over.

Now, the burden of selecting practical, relevant content falls heavily on your SME. But do what you can to focus on translating that content into real-world examples and situations. Build scenarios. Translate concepts and theories into actionable workplace case studies. Create assignments that promote engagement in the world.

Learning requires meaning; if you find ways to give your information that rich subtext, your learners will remember it far beyond reading page 347 of their textbook.

What do you think? Do you have any tips and tricks for keeping your online courses learner-centered? Do learners react more positively to some strategies than others? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.



Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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