An Impact Study of Educators’ Use of the Learning Needs Explorer - Digital Promise
Designing for Learner Variability

An Impact Study of Educators’ Use of the Learning Needs Explorer


Many teachers across the country recognize the wide variability that exists in their students. In a recent Digital Promise survey, Learning in the 21st Century: How the American Public, Teachers, and Parents View Educational Priorities and How to Achieve Them, the vast majority of the 500 teachers surveyed endorsed that their students differ in their skills, cognitive abilities, social-emotional states, and back- grounds. However, teachers surveyed also noted that they have limited time or support to address learners’ variability in the classroom. Ninety-four percent of teachers surveyed also reported that lack of time is a barrier to reading more education research that could deepen their own understanding and contribute to their practice. The survey also found that other barriers to reading research included pay- walls to accessing journal articles and the perceived limited applicability to teachers’ real-world setting.

The Learner Variability Project (LVP) at Digital Promise has built their free, open-source, and interactive website, the Learner Variability Navigator (LVN), to bring learning sciences research into the hands of teachers in an accessible and actionable format. The site features seven PreK-Adult Learner Models that summarize research findings across the whole learner and how they impact learning outcomes. It also features hundreds of evidence-based strategies and resources that educators can use to support their students’ learning. In February 2020 (prior to schools closing due to the COVID-19 crisis), we conducted a pilot program in collaboration with DonorsChoose to engage K-12 teachers in using the LVN with the aims of:

  1. Increasing their awareness and understanding of the factors and strategies that influence their students’ learning
  2. Gauging the accessibility and effectiveness of using our site to address their students’ different learning needs


The teachers engaged with a particular tool on the LVN, the Learning Needs Explorer, which asks teachers to input learner factors that are relevant to the needs of their students. It then suggests other factors to consider that are connected to their selected factors in the research. Finally, it recommends strategies that support the selected factors. In this study, teachers were asked to:

  1. Create a workspace with the learner factors and instructional strategies of interest to them
  2. Implement a recommended strategy in their classrooms
  3. Complete a follow-up survey reflecting on their experience

I used math mindset to get students to understand how math is used in the real world. Students loved it so much so that they had an a-ha moment. One student said, “This makes so much more sense.” In addition, I also worked on building relationships with my students. Many lack the confidence to be successful. So when they come to my desk with a question, I make sure to give them praise when they figure it out or better understand the process.
Katie Buckely
from Le Roy, IL
Responses to the survey were coded to capture the categories of factors and strategies that teachers selected and the types of support the experience provided to both them and their students.

One hundred and six teachers from 31 states chose to participate in the program and received $200 in DonorsChoose credits after they completed the task.

Demographics of Teachers’ Schools

  • 72 percent of participating teachers came from majority-low-income school communities, based on students’ eligibility for free and reduced price lunch
  • 44 percent of teachers were at urban districts; 31 percent were at suburban districts; 18 percent were at rural districts
  • 50 percent of teachers were at schools with a majority of non-white students
  • 43 percent of teachers were at schools with greater than 10 percent English language learners


Overall Impressions

Sixty-five percent of teachers responded with a nine or 10 out of 10 that they would recommend LVN to a colleague. The tool also earned a Net Promoter Score of 57 (scale of -100 to 100), which indicates positive user experience and potential growth.

When asked how the LVN was helpful to them, 64 percent of teachers surveyed reported that LVN helped to identify research-based strategies to support specific students’ needs and 58 percent indicated that LVN helped them to understand how the various factors that underlie learning are connected to each other.

Teacher Survey Responses about Using LVN

Teachers chose to examine multiple learner factors from across our whole child framework, with the majority of teachers selecting cognitive factors to focus on.

Teachers also selected a range of strategies to consider for their students.

  • 35 percent of teachers selected Active Learning strategies, such as Creating Visuals, Games,
    and Acting/Role-play.
  • 35 percent of teachers selected Cooperative Learning strategies, such as Gallery Walk and Peer
  • 31 percent of teachers selected Instructional Approaches strategies, such as Centers and Direct
  • 21 percent of teachers selected Visual Learning Tools, such as Graphic Organizers.

Ultimately, 81 percent of teachers made changes to their lessons based on using LVN while another nine percent planned to try new strategies in future lessons.

We tried the gallery walk in the classroom. The students loved it and it was an amazing way to get my students collaborating with one another. I really loved using iBrainstorm. The students were very engaged and enjoyed the hands-on experience, which I’d like to implement more in the classroom. I then tried a gallery walk with images in social studies. It was incredible to listen to the conversations that students were having about the material. I'm always looking for ways to use depth of knowledge with students and go deeper with responses. This was a great way to do that! The tool gave me so many ideas for future lessons.
Abbie Koert
Brunswick, GA
Overall, 87 percent of teachers reported that LVN supported their teaching in some way. More specifically, 66 percent of teachers reported that LVN supported their own learning and reflection on their practice, while 43 percent reported that LVN would support their planning for future lessons.

Importantly, 63 percent of teachers observed that LVN strategies supported their students’ learning in some way, with the specific types of support including:

  1. Content/knowledge development (32 percent)
  2. Student engagement/enthusiasm (27 percent)
  3. Student collaboration (20 percent)

Additionally, 39 percent of teachers considered high-needs student populations when exploring LVN (low socioeconomic status, English language learners, special education, and students who are below grade level).

In terms of their user experience, 75 percent of teachers provided positive feedback on the site, citing that it was “user friendly,” “efficient,” and “useful.”


I chose emotion, motivation, and social awareness and relationship skills. ... After reading about the gallery walk strategy, I thought this would be a great way to share their work and lend one another support. It went great! Students LOVED seeing each other's work and they were full of compliments and helpful suggestions. They walked around and left notes for their classmates with their responses. They were also inspired by one another to do even more and better work!
Julie Kaplan
Corono, NY
The results of this pilot program are promising. They suggest that even brief use of the Learner Variability Navigator (LVN) encourages teachers to reflect on research-based strategies they already use to support their students’ diverse situations and needs. The LVN was also found to help teachers explore new strategies to add to their repertoire.

In a larger program planned with DonorsChoose, we intend to investigate how teachers’ use of the LVN affects their understanding of learner variability and their self-efficacy for addressing their students’ different needs. We will provide teachers with an opportunity to share the tool and how they used it with their colleagues in order to further promote use of research-based instruction in the classroom to support the whole child.

Programs like our partnership with DonorsChoose place research at the fingertips of teachers. They provide a space for educators to not only expand their own knowledge, but to share and collaborate with their colleagues on ways to better understand and attend to the variability in each of their learners.


We would like to thank our partners in this work, DonorsChoose, as well as the many teachers who participated in the pilot program. This analysis was funded by the generous support of the Oak Foundation, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

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