Designing for Students

three diverse females posing for a picture

Who are our Students?

How to Design for Adult Learners

Specifics of International Design

At SUNY Empire, student success is of the utmost importance and is the ultimate focus of all who work at this university. We strive to provide a highly supportive learning experience that builds student skills and success effectively, enabling our students to reach their goals. The more students that we have who successfully complete their courses, the more students we help to achieve their ultimate goal of earning their degree.

User experience design gives us a lens through which to think about our courses as a product: design thinking. Design thinking, helps us design better courses through empathizing with our students, anticipating challenges our students might not actively realize they will have, and making the best product possible for our users.

How to Design for Adult Learners

Thanks to the work of Malcolm Knowles, we can expect these andragogical assumptions of the adult learner when designing courses.

Learn how to ‘translate’ them into practical course design strategies.

Need to Know

Adults need to know the reason for learning.

Design Strategies

  • provide the context of the presented information and its significance for students’ academic, professional, and personal lives
  • show how the presented information builds on what students already know
  • present student-focused learning outcomes of instructional units
  • show alignment of learning activities with the learning outcomes

Prior Experience

Adults draw upon their experiences to aid in their retention and transfer of knowledge.

Design Strategies

  • show the connection between the new material and the one from previous modules or courses
  • solicit students’ analysis of how the ‘new’ knowledge relates to the knowledge the students already have
  • ask students for examples of practical applications of the learned concepts


Adults need to feel responsible for their decisions on education, and involved in planning and evaluation of their instruction.

Design Strategies

  • provide clear goals and evaluation criteria

  • design learning activities to be open to individualization (e.g., students are able to select their own assignment topics)

  • allow students to discover things for themselves (providing guidance and error correction)

  • ask for student self-evaluation (e.g., when using rubrics, ask students to submit a filled-out rubric evaluating their own assignment submission)

  • incorporate peer review assignments

Readiness to Learn

Adults are ready to learn things they need to know in order to cope effectively with real-life situations.

Design Strategies

  • focus on what students can apply in the present (as opposed to in the future)

  • instruction should be task-oriented (as opposed to memorization)

  • incorporate collaboration strategies and tools (in order for students to build their social networks and learn from others who share the same interests)

Orientation to Learning

As a person learns new knowledge, he or she wants to apply it immediately in problem solving; adults learn by doing.

Design Strategies

  • emphasize how the learned material is going to solve problems the students regularly encounter

  • incorporate authentic problems into your assignments


As a person matures, their most potent motivating factors are internal – self-esteem, personal improvement.

Design Strategies

  • facilitate exploration

  • incorporate challenging exercises

  • enable the studied materials and assignments to be individualized

  • allow for the learning to occur through mistakes – incorporate low-stakes quizzes and other learning activities

Specifics of International Design

Virtual collaboration can naturally cross borders and oceans to become international.

This adds a new set of issues to consider when designing courses such as cultural differences, differences in financial ability of the students, textbook access, access to technology and internet connection, language issues etc.

Empire State University faculty have opportunities to get involved internationally either with the help of SUNY COIL Center that provides interested faculty across SUNY training and help with finding international partnerships or by teaching within the Center for International Education.

Below is a list of issues that need to be addressed when designing and teaching an online course that includes international collaboration:

  • Commitment of all partners: If this is a course that includes collaboration of more institutions, all participating institutions and teachers need to be committed to see the project through.
  • Teacher expectation and preparation: All participating faculty need to be clear on goals and expectations. Training for teachers before starting to work on the course might need to be included
  • Clear plan: A clear plan for course development with deadlines and clear responsibilities for all participants.
  • Student needs: Before course development starts, it is necessary to know who the students are, what is their cultural background, technological possibilities,  and level of knowledge and experience in the field the course is in.
  • Language issues: If there are students taking the course in their 2nd or 3rd language, the language used for instructions and explanations in the course needs to be adjusted – use of slang, jokes and cultural references needs to be reviewed and possibly changed.
  • Course goals, objectives and structure: Course goals, objectives and structure should be clear and understandable for every online course, but in international environment this becomes even more essential.
  • Use of course materials and textbooks: In an international environment, use of printed materials might be problematic since mailing texts internationally can lead to unbearable price increase by shipping and custom charges. Use of online materials can resolve this problem, however, some publishers make their online materials accessible only in certain countries. Some course designers are starting to heavily rely on Open Educational Resources (OER) in their courses, as those, being free, should be accessible from anywhere.
  • Technological opportunities and abilities of students: There are many countries in the world, where a broadband internet access is not entirely common for everyone. If there are students with connectivity problems taking part in the course, the course design needs to adjust to this and video conferences or video lectures need to be limited.
  • Expectations and preparation of students: It is possible (especially with students from different cultural backgrounds) that some of the students might have very different ideas on what is expected from them and what they expect from their teacher. The course expectations need to be explained very clearly, and if necessary, training for students can be included.
  • Planning of course activities: When planning collaborative activities, the diversity of the students’ needs to be taken into account. If there are language issues, the students will need more time to get organized within a group. If there are students from cultures where collaboration is not common, it is necessary to lead up to collaborative activities, etc.
  • Planning of evaluation: Student evaluation differs in different countries, so evaluation of student activities needs to be explained clearly and thoroughly.
  • Issues of ethics and plagiarism: Expectations towards student ethics and tolerance of plagiarism also differs from country to country. Rules and expectations for the course need to be explained clearly, along with penalties in order to avoid confusion. In some cases, full pre-course training might be necessary.

Teaching an international course requires lots of patience and very often an ability to improvise, as even with the best preparation, unexpected situations can happen.

After gaining an understanding of the student population, begin the next step:Getting Started with Design.


Kayumova, A., R. & Sadykova, G., V, (2016). Online Collaborative Cross-Cultural Learning: Student’s Perspectives. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, Vol. 20, Special Issue, 248-255.

Sadykova, G., & Dautermann, J. (2009). Crossing Cultures and Borders in International Online Distance Higher Education. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(2), 89-114.

Pelletiere Calix, L., & Torcivia Prusko, P. (2014). Technology to Foster Cross-Cultural Student Collaboration. All About Mentoring, 45, 30-38.

Porcaro, D., & Carrier, C. (2014). Ten Guiding Principles for Designing Online Modules that Involve International Collaborations. International Journal for Education and Development Using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT), 10(2), 142-150.

Website of SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning Center [online] (accessed October 24, 2016).

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning. Follet.

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Gulf Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action. Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2015). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (8th ed.). Rutledge.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.