15 HigherEd Student Personas That Will Help You Redesign Learner Experience

By Gunnar Counselman
In 4 Steps to Reorganize Schools Around Learning Relationships, I shared a template for organizational redesign, which we at Fidelis use with HigherEd institutions that want to ensure every student has “the three P’s”–an important purpose, a clear pathway for that purpose and a network of people to support them.
To achieve high-impact redesign, colleges must also define their “student lifecycle,” which can incorporate the people students interact with, their defined purpose and the paths available to them. From day one through graduation, colleges have the opportunity to personalize the learner experience by taking a smarter approach to student support services.
Student lifecycle redesign requires that institutions:

  • EMPATHIZE with students;
  • DEFINE a point of view about what students need school to help them do in their lives;
  • IDEATE ways to help students;
  • PROTOTYPE and build examples and solutions to show students; and
  • EXPERIMENT and work with students to see what improves their experience.

Most schools struggle to nail the very first step–empathy. Building empathy with students in education is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Seeing the world as students do and helping them to navigate from that perspective is a challenge, especially on traditional campuses with large student populations and institution-centric designs. While acknowledging that every student is different, it is also human tendency to project one’s own values onto others and fill in details with one’s own stories rather than the student’s story.
The good news is that we’ve found a shortcut. Our work with dozens of institutions has led to the discovery of the 15 most common student “personas,” which shed light on what motivates different types of students. Having a deep understanding of each persona enables adults to get on the same page as students, and effectively build the type of relationships necessary to support a student’s path and purpose.

Identifying the Most Common Student Personas

The Most Common Student Personas

Using Student Personas as Entry Points to Redesign

Without understanding and being able to empathize with students, you risk them feeling as though they are just another number being pushed through the system. The following examples illustrate how personas can be entry points for designing an optimal student lifecycle.

2nd Chancers

“2nd Chancers” are everyone’s favorite adult student because college often means something very personal to them. They’re often moms or dads going back to school after having raised a family and their degree is both a means to an end and an end in and of itself. You’ll often hear 2nd Chancers talk about “making their kids proud” or “doing it right this time.” They take ownership of their early setbacks, but express a deep commitment to getting it right this time. One thing to remember is that the story of the 2nd Chancer is a famous and highly relatable one.

Box Checkers

“Box Checkers” are almost always working adults who have some kind of pay raise or promotion associated with degree completion. They aren’t motivated by the learning itself, but by the value of the “checked box.” They’ve often made it to the mid-point in their careers without a degree, but hit a barrier to advancement. In some cases, they get an automatic pay increase by earning a degree. Box Checkers tend to be tough nuts for many educators because we believe that a degree is more than a task to complete. Efforts to get Box Checkers to engage in a more transformational experience can send them running for the hills if there’s not a strong relationship already in place.

Support Me Students

“Support Me Students” have always struggled, and often for family and environmental reasons outside of their own control. They’re frequently coming back to school after years or they’ve developed a sense of dependency on their first run through school. Support Me Students are hard because they lack any and all proactivity, and frequently want to be seen as 2nd Chancers and you frankly want to bend them away from their natural “support me” tendencies over time or else they graduate without having grown. The key difference between a Support Me Student and 2nd Chancers is that 2nd Chancers have a sense of confidence and have clear goals, whereas Support Me Students tend to exhibit more helplessness and despair. Unlike other personas that need help but don’t admit it, Support Me Students tend to know it and gravitate to situations that have a bench of help available.

(Re)Designing Around Student Needs

The above persona descriptions lays bare the obvious conclusion that if you misdiagnose a Support Me Student and treat them like a Box Checker, they’re going to flounder for a lack of structure, guidance and love. Support Me Students don’t have confidence independently yet and if we want them to succeed we have to connect with them, show them that we care and then set increasingly high expectations.
At the same time, treating a 2nd Chancer like a Box Checker will leave them feeling uninspired, like they squandered their second chance. 2nd Chancers want encouragement. They want to be seen succeeding and they crave connection to the educated world from which they’ve been separated. Give them that, and they’ll work themselves to the bone. But be careful with 2nd Chancers, as they often forget how much work school is and life can get in the way. Engaging their families to be more self-sufficient often makes a difference.
And woe to the person who treats a Box Checker like a Support Me Student. They will feel smothered and bolt faster than it takes to say “Can I get a copy of my transcript, please?”
The idea here is not to build an exhaustive list of personas. That’s not possible nor wise. Instead, use the framework to inform a process to identify personas in your school, build empathy with them and create more positive student lifecycles.
When you do that, you’ll be ready to continue the process of designing a student lifecycle that ensures that every student is prepared to succeed in life with a PURPOSE that is both clear and important to them; a solid PATHWAY of goals that leads toward that purpose; and a support network of PEOPLE appropriate to who they are and what they want to achieve.
Coming next in this series: The one graph you need to succeed that combines these students personas and the Net Outcomes Score–a metric that, while based on the famous Net Promoter Score, is more singularly focused on measuring the value proposition of education longitudinally.
For more see:

This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Out of Class Student Support Services” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Fidelis Education (@FidelisEd). For more information, contact [email protected]. Join the conversation on Twitter using #OutOfClassSupport.

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