Learn how a tool from user experience design can help inform student-centered and empathetic course design.

User personas are a tool for user experience design to help make products with the specific users at the center. While I’m not advocating for a view of higher education that sees students as consumers and courses as products, I do think that user personas can be adapted for an empathetic teaching practice.

Typically, when I begin building a course, I start with the objectives in mind and work backwards from that point, aligning my course objectives with the assessments, activities, and materials. But I find that though I would say my teaching style is learner or student-centered, I do not start my course design process with them in mind, at least not directly.

As I continue to think about what makes for good design, I see value in incorporating an exercise that centers the students at the outset of my designing process. Creating user personas is an excellent structured exercise that will assist you in empathizing with your students as you consider the unique needs and challenges they may face in your course.

What is a User Persona?

Adobe defines a user persona as: “an archetypical [user] whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users.” These personas help us empathize with our learners so that we can strategically plan the design and delivery of our courses to best meet their needs.

Adobe outlines 4 characteristics of a good user persona. I have provided a modified version of that list below:

  1. Personas should be backed by real data. That is a challenge when we are talking about students who are in our classes specifically, but your personal observations can inform what you would include.
  2. Personas should reflect real user experiences and not just roles set up in a system. We need to think about how students are using the learning tools we put in front of them.
  3. User personas should reflect the current state of a student’s experience; it is not meant to reflect an end-goal or ideal scenario.
  4. Personas should be specific to your given teaching context.

How to Create a User Persona

Personally, I think some great items to include in your personas are demographic information, pronouns/gender identity, goals for the students’ education, aspirations for their future, and frustrations about their current and previous learning experiences. A photo that represents them is a nice touch as well. You can create this in Word or you can use a tool like Adobe Express or Canva to create one.

This is an example of a user persona demonstrating a possible student with their goals, aspirations, and frustrations.

The persona above, which is available here as an Adobe Express template, is based on my own observations of students’ experiences, but I would encourage you to consider using institutional and/or departmental data to inform yours. While Marianna is not a real student, she represents our online population well, and her persona helps us to keep in mind what our students bring to the class.

You may find it helpful to have your students reflect on their goals, aspirations, and frustrations at the end of your course. You can use the insights from these reflections to build personas for when you design or redesign the course in the future.

Using the Persona for Course Design

We can ascertain that students like Marianna are busy, working adults who have family obligations. They bring their identities and life experiences into our classrooms. They crave connection and community that may come more naturally in an on-campus course. We also learn that the course design or learning tools may not be intuitive for all learners.

When we create and analyze these personas, we are presented with design opportunities to better the student experience. I have outlined some potential design components below that could be impactful for students like Marianna.

  • Think about the course onboarding. When students first log into my course, is it clear where and how they need to get started?
  • Think about the course learning materials and what hidden messages they might be conveying. Do my course materials represent the diversity of my students, or are they telling certain groups of students that they are not represented in this field?
  • Build a sense of community. Humanize yourself by engaging as an active participant in your course and encourage students to interact as much as possible.


Many of us strive for a student-centered approach to our teaching, but when it comes to course design, especially in online spaces, the student may not be our first thought. Creating user personas is an excellent humanizing activity that can have practical implications for our course design and student learning.

What do you think? Are user personas useful for course design, or is there a better method for centering our students in our course planning?

  • Shane Lanning (they/them)

    Shane Lanning is an Instructional Consultant in the Division of Online and Strategic Learning. Their academic background includes an MA in Linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which they earned at Ball State, and they are currently pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. They previously taught as an Instructor of ESL in the Intensive English Institute where they developed a passion for international students and internationalization efforts; moreover, Shane strives for an inclusive teaching practice and is interested in exploring how to best achieve community in a rapidly evolving educational landscape.