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Universally Designed Learner Personas

Updated: May 17, 2023

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Abstract image of learners

This week, I’m speaking to a key element in the design process – understanding the audience. We know that one size does not fit all, and it likely fits nobody perfectly. So, we have to employ our empathy, experience, and available data to envision the spectrum of learner variability we’ll be designing for. Universal Design for Learning is a great way to intentionally address that variability.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of creating learner personas – hypothetical learners that represent the different attitudes, abilities, aspirations, etc. (I ran out of “a” words) your eventual learners will possess – not uniformly, but in varied combinations and intensities. Taken together, your half-dozen or so personas should, in theory, cover the gamut of your audience in terms of motivation, perceptions, and challenges.

I personally don’t use personas – I use the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. However, it’s not my aim to change your practice, just offer a way to better inform it. The Guidelines can be a great tool for informing your persona creation process.

The guidelines are a matrix, consisting of three principles, nine guidelines, and twenty-nine checkpoints. I’m not going to go through all of that – rather, I’ve reframed these guidelines as questions you can use to inform your empathy, using the research that undergirds the guidelines to pinpoint crucial aspects of learning and likely places where barriers to that learning will arise.

How to use these questions

Each question highlights a necessary element for engaging one or more of the necessary brain functions related to learning – emotional, intellectual, and strategic – or what I call the learning triangle. If you anticipate that all learners will be able to engage that element, you don’t need to consider that as a need for flexibility or support in your design. However, if the answer is no, that means you need to think about that. The UDL Guidelines can help you pinpoint barriers in more granularity, so to help you go deeper, I’ve put the corresponding guidelines in italics under each question.

First, think about how learners will engage with the learning.

To what extent will every learner independently…

  1. Make an initial emotional connection to the learning?

  2. Provide Options for Recruiting Interest

  3. Sustain their effort and persist when the learning gets hard?

  4. Provide Options for Sustaining Effort and Persistence

  5. Own their role in the learning?

  6. Provide Options for Self Regulation

Next, think about how learners will perceive, process, and connect to the content.

To what extent will every learner independently…

  1. Perceive what needs to be learned

  2. Provide Options for Perception

  3. Process what needs to be learned

  4. Provide Options for Language and Symbols

  5. Comprehend and make connections with what needs to be learned

  6. Provide Options for Comprehension

Finally, think about how the learners are expected to communicate, collaborate, and demonstrate learning.

To what extent will every learner independently…

  1. Physically access and interact with the content and necessary tools?

  2. Provide Options for Physical Action

  3. Express themselves and problem-solve in authentic, effective ways?

  4. Provide Options for Expression and Communication

  5. Think strategically to set, meet, and even exceed goals?

  6. Provide Options for Executive Functions

If the answer is no to any of these questions, that’s something that should show up in your collection of personas; otherwise, you’ll be overlooking a key area of variability, and your learners will let you know it once the learning starts.

Speaking of which, have reasonable expectations for yourself – you may not anticipate every challenge. That’s okay, as long as you learn from it and consider it the next time. Don’t blame the learner for finding a barrier you missed; thank them for allowing you to learn along with them.

James McKenna

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Until next time,


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Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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