Having a learner-centric approach at its core means thinking of others first. Managers want to see a significant return on their training investments, which is understandable. But first, employers must consider the needs and interests of their employees. This is similar to the approach marketers have when creating material for specific audiences. The most successful marketers put themselves in the shoes of their customers to ensure they provide valuable, aesthetically pleasing material. This of course increases the effectiveness of their efforts, and the same principles can be applied to internal trainings. 

I have applied a learner-centric approach at my university since its founding in 1978. This mindset can result in curriculum that unlocks a learner’s potential rather than shuffling people through a formulaic process. The benefits of applying these principles include: 

  • Increased employee morale. 
  • Expedited ability to implement instruction. 
  • Reduced need for departmental oversight. 
  • Reduced need for follow up training sessions. 
  • Increased team efficiency. 
  • Increased employee responsibility. 
A man looks at a detailed graph on his laptop
Photo by Jason Briscoe

Developing a learner-centric model 

Step 1: Listen

The first step to the learner-centered approach is listening. It’s important to place yourself in the shoes of your audience, in this case your employees, in order to understand them. Knowing your audience is the first key in effective communication, and training is no different. 

If you are training your whole company or a specific department, it’s important to understand that group’s goals and perspectives, as well as those of everyone you will be instructing whenever possible. This can help you in applying unique components to the training that pertain to those groups’ goals and responsibilities. 

Step 2: Establish Outcomes

After listening and understanding your audience, the next step is to establish outcomes. What change do you want to see as a result of this training? Working with a framework centered around desired outcomes will help you define a path that connects your audience from where they are to where you’d like them to be. 

Outcomes should be ambitious but realistic and centered around an organizational goal that directly pertains to your audience. The role of the instructor evolves to suit the audience, but your goals do not change. Sharing training outcomes with your learners will help them understand why they are participating and show them what you want to help them achieve. When you create a collaborative environment that is transparent in its goals, your team will feel more comfortable asking questions and gaining clarity as you move through the curriculum. You can read more about outcome-based learning here

Working with a framework centered around desired outcomes will help you define a path that connects your audience from where they are to where you’d like them to be.  Click To Tweet

One common outcome in learner-centric teaching is developing learner independence and responsibility. By supporting each trainee in becoming an owner of their education, they will have tools to develop their learning beyond the context of the structured training. Creating a strong sense of autonomy can also empower your team to develop their problem-solving skills and collaborate more within the organization. 

Step 3: Formatting

The most effective learner-centric curriculum includes different types of learning to accommodate unique learning styles and core competencies. Many successful teachers both at the K-12 level and beyond incorporate varied approaches that cater to the age, knowledge base, and skill set of their audience. The same ideas apply in a business setting. The more you diversify the learning material, the more successful your learners will be. 

A learner-centric approach also supports a collaborative environment. Learners interacting with one another allows more creativity and encourages the material to be absorbed in a way each learner will understand. Allowing learners to interact with one another and discuss how the training will apply in their daily work will help them contextualize the material as well. 

Setting up activities that participants are not accustomed to activates their creativity and they will contribute more creative ideas and solutions. This helps them to likely remember the activity long after the training is over. Click To Tweet

In traditional forms of training, the trainee is passive. This allows for learners to become distracted, which leads to poorer outcomes. However, involving each learner in the educational process helps them encode the information into students’ long-term memories. This may involve common activities such as “pair and share,” but it also may require more innovative techniques to bring learners into a mindset of discovery. Setting up activities that participants are not accustomed to allows their creativity to activate and they will contribute more creative ideas and solutions. This helps them to likely remember the activity long after the training is over. 

A group of five professionals sit at a conference table with their laptops, looking intently at the instructor who is standing at one end of the table with a PowerPoint presentation behind him.
Photo by Campaign Creators

The learner-centric model in action 

Since I founded CalSouthern, I have maintained a learner-centric approach. Even when I was a sole proprietor, learners’ experiences and outcomes were the focus. These principles continue today in every school within the university, but specifically I wish to highlight the School of Business.  

Every learner has agency and the ability to guide their own educational journey. Click To Tweet

Our DBA and MBA programs stand out due to the applied nature of the curriculum and the way that learners are involved in the learning process. Every learner has agency and the ability to guide their own educational journey. Our mentors are poised to offer any and all support needed throughout each course they take. When considering curriculum updates, our deans examine learner feedback, educational outcomes in each course, internal data, and industry data. All these components are used to create the most effective, applicable, and productive material possible. 

A man leans around computer to speak with colleague
Photo by EveryPixelSISE

To ensure top learner experience, we maintain multiple mentors for each course who are assigned individual learners. This allows them to study at their own pace and receive personalized instruction. With an internal student support system, learners can reach out at any time to receive guidance, support, and answers to their questions. 

Specifically within the School of Business, we provide options for customizing the curriculum to accommodate the needs and interests of each individual. Aside from core classes within each program, learners can choose from a wide variety of concentrations and create a program that is most applicable to their current work and their career goals. 

This structure allows learners to engage in ways that suit their learning style and apply their studies immediately through an applied approach. Additionally, our Dean of Business Dr. Bonita Nickle points out:  

“The final program outcome for the DBA is a doctoral project instead of a dissertation. Learners have the opportunity to conduct business research resulting in a business project that is more applicable to a business setting than a dissertation.” 

-Dr. Bonita Nickle. Dean, School of Business and Management, Education, and Interdisciplinary Studies at California Southern University

This allows for the project to directly correlate with an applied concept related to each learner’s profession and results in our learners becoming experts in the subjects they pursue beyond a philosophical understanding. 

The key to training 

Not every learner will easily follow a traditional presentation. The best way to ensure the training is effective is to maintain a relational learner-centric approach. Ensure your trainees are as involved in the learning process as possible. Create ambitious yet pragmatic outcome goals that suit your audience. And don’t hesitate to ask for feedback in order to grow from each experience to meet your team’s needs. 

Developing a learner-centric model for training takes additional preparation; however, the results of presenting such a model provide significantly higher ROI for trainers, both for employers and educational institutions.


About Dr. Donald “Doc” Hecht — Doc is an Educator, University Founder, and President Emeritus writing and discussing the trends and challenges facing higher, online, and distance education, among other topics. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or ask any questions! You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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