Anticipating learner variability

Understand aspects of learner variability and intentionally plan your instruction to support your students.
Key Terms and Definitions

Learner:  A course member who is positioned to take an active role in their own learning process

Variability: A course member's unique profile (social identities, learning preferences, background, experiences, interests, etc.) that frame their relationships with you, your course content, and their peers.

Flexibility: Easily modified and offering choice and variation.

When we design for the average we design for no one.

Todd Rose, The Myth of Average

The Myth of Average

This talk by Todd Rose discusses the importance of understanding variability when designing learning experiences. He discusses the concept of the "jagged learner profile" in which each learner can be high, average, or low on a variety of factors.

As you watch think about....

  • What resonated with you?
  • What troubled you?
  • How does this relate to your teaching.

Todd Rose: Variability Matters,from CAST, at the Cyberlearning Research Summit.  

Variability explained

Variability is the term used to describe how unique and varied we are in how we learn. For example, no two learners activate the same pathways in the brain. As you think about the variability of the learners in your courses, it may be helpful to consider their individual "jagged" learning profile (Rose, 2016). Considering the jagged learning profile, gives us a broader way of describing the range of a learner's strengths and needs. Take a moment to review the jagged learning profile of the learner depicted in the image above. The profile depicts a range of strengths and needs. Consider how you would intentionally build flexibility into your course to support the areas of need and bolster the areas of strength?

Personal Learning Profile.

Learner traits that can affect your students include:

  • Knowledge of course topics
  • Interest in course topics
  • Paying attention
  • Remembering things
  • Reading
  • Writing ideas
  • Verbalizing ideas
  • Studying
  • Being creative
  • Planning/organizing
  • Handling stress
  • Self regulation
  • Executive function
  • Persistence

Personal Learning Profile tool.

This handout is available for you to fill out your "jagged" learning profile for yourself.  The links for each factor go to CAST's UDL Guidelines and provides strategies for addressing that factor.

Similar but a different set of characteristics.

Intentionally plan for learner variability

Commit to addressing at least ONE anticipated area of learner variability in the design of one of your courses.  Making small changes uses a gradual and deliberate process and helps make what could feel like a very large undertaking more manageable.

Consider the barriers a learner may encounter in your course due to the current design. Consider how context (face to face, virtual, social distancing) impacts learner variability and magnifies or reduces barriers.

[Video] IC Instructors discuss planning for variability.

From Summer institute, 2020.

Additional Resources

Digital Promise Learner Variability Navigator - Adult Learner
Explore learner factors critical to adult learning. See how each factor impacts learning and explore strategies that support it.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from


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This information, in part, was repurposed from the  Summer Institute 2020 through the Center for Faculty Excellence, Ithaca College.