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Significant learning experiences and implied students

David Starr-Glass (Center for International Education, SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga Springs, New York, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 6 February 2020

Issue publication date: 10 March 2020




This paper reflects on and seeks to reconcile and to consolidate two bodies of literature. The first deals with course design in higher education, particularly with efforts to create significant learning experiences. The second body of literature, which is considerably less well-known, considers the implied student – the intended or preconceived student for whom these learning experiences are created. Significant learning experiences are created by instructors for students, not for themselves. Thus, a critical condition for success in course design is to examine and interrogate the implied student that instructors had in mind and to reconcile those preconceived notions with the actual students who populate the learning space.


The paper is a critical reflection on the literature and the author’s experience in designing college level business and economics courses and in attempting to create significant learning experiences in those courses. The study reflects on practice, reviews the relevant literature, and is speculative in nature. It is not empirically based and may well have limited generalizability. However, it is hoped that this paper will promote further exploration of the implied student construct and will lead to further research into the misalignment of expectations and outcomes between implied students and actual students.


The paper contends that there is inevitably a gap – for both the instructor and the learner – between the expectations and outcomes that are anticipated for implied students and realized by actual students. It suggests that recognition of this gap is a critical element in designing significant learning experiences for actual learners. The paper further suggests that success in creating these experiences is improved through reconsidering the implied student stereotype, engaging with actual students and instructor-led communication of the implicit goals and outcomes of the course.


Students are best served if they engage in learning spaces thoughtfully centered on significant learning experiences. However, learning environments are often constructed around envisaged students who are defined by the learning expectations, pedagogic philosophies and ideological biases of the instructor. This paper provides value by encouraging instructors to explore their preconceptions of the implied student and creating and facilitating learning environments that recognize, appreciate and respond to the actual students who will populate them. Further, the paper highlights “the implied student,” which has gained considerable traction in Nordic countries but only limited attention in the USA and UK.



Starr-Glass, D. (2020), "Significant learning experiences and implied students", On the Horizon, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 55-62.



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