Managing learner diversity

The challenge that a diverse learner group creates, and what trainers can do about it.

A diverse group of learners is a challenge for any training activity. It raises questions like how much content is just enough and what pace of instruction is just right. To complicate things, as a training program progresses, the diversity may even increase. That’s because learners may take different trajectories: fast or slow on the uptake, engaged or turned off, confident about implementing learning or not, and so on.

In the middle of all this, sometimes, trainers will scramble and stretch to meet disparate individual needs, revisiting content or answering more questions; and that carries the risk of disengaging a few learners who wait impatiently for more advanced stuff to begin. At other times, trainers will take the easier route of sticking to the original “one-size-fits-all” teaching plan, leaving struggling learners to fend for themselves.

But is there a middle path? Or a completely alternative way to handle this? I want to answer this question in two steps. First, I will investigate learner diversity in some detail. Next, I present a practical way out of having to choose between extremes.

Skill-Will matrix

The familiar Skill-Will matrix is a useful tool to understand learner diversity. To cover a broad range of possibilities, we define the two terms as:

A learner with high WILL: is eager to learn, to stretch, has bought-in to the usefulness of the training program, wants to use new learning to her own situation.

A learner with high SKILL: understands concepts, is able to replicate whatever is covered in the workshop

In the skill-will construct, these two dimensions are considered independent of each other… a learner may score high on one and low on another.

With those definitions, we can plot the mental state of learners (blue dots) on a skill-will diagram. You could imagine that these learners are in the middle of a typical training program, and the words in red reveal what they’re thinking.

Of course, the 4 neat quadrants are arbitrarily chosen. Learners can be found anywhere on the diagram. The quadrants, which represent extreme states, give us some terminology(Q1,Q2,Q3,Q4) and help us understand and articulate the learner’s mental landscape.

Note that people in Quadrants 1,2 and 3 are struggling with either will or skill issues or both. Quadrant 4 is the ideal situation, where we want everybody to be.

Handling diversity in an intervention

What can we do about such diversity? I thought of a way, based on 4 principles:

1. Design the intervention as two halves, separated by gap of a few days

This allows us to take corrective action midway through the intervention. We can plan this corrective action in advance, rather than rush about and improvise in the midst of an in-progress training workshop.

2. Test for will/skill after the first half

The ‘will’ element can be assessed by asking about the learners beliefs about the usefulness of the training program and intention to put effort and implement learning. The ‘skill’ element may be assessed in the traditional way: a written quiz for knowledge; a demonstration for abilities. The results of the assessment will help us identify where learners are on the skill-will diagram. In a largish group, it is usual to find at least some learners in every quadrant.

3. Engage Q1/Q2/Q3 learners as per need

This step tries to narrow the skill/will gap within the group (bring the blue dots together, nearer Q4).

The closing of the will-gap (for Q1/Q3) is about addressing doubts about the usefulness of the training provided. This is more like an exploratory conversation for both trainer and learners. Practical possibilities for usage, barriers to implementation, relevance of training content are the issues that could be discussed. Its entirely possible for the trainer to discover that it is the training content which needs tweaking; that the learner are justifiably morose!

The closing of the skill-gap (for Q1/Q2) is about revisiting concepts, answering questions or providing more practice.

These extra engagements need to be scheduled and announced in advance, the assumption being that at least a few learners will gain from them.

4. Continue the rest of the intervention (again with the entire group)

Hopefully, the previous step would have helped learners be more in sync with each other. Those who had lagged behind in skill would have caught up. Those who were skeptical would have newfound interest in the programme. With this more homogeneous group, the second half of the intervention may proceed.

The diagram below shows the learning journey of the 4 types of learners.



The usual way of handling learner diversity is to cater to the ‘average’ learner. The hope is that the “far from average” learners will adjust somehow. This enables a logistically simple (less expensive too) intervention, at the cost of learner engagement.

In contrast, the multiple paths different learners take in the skill-will based approach needs some extra logistics effort. But it allows us to re-engage those participants who would otherwise be ‘lost’, had we continued unmindful of their different learning needs. It makes sense to do it this way if learner engagement, and ultimately, training effectiveness is the No. 1 goal.


Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash