Identifying Your Target Audience

Last updated on 2023-07-10 | Edit this page

Estimated time 45 minutes



  • Why is it so important to think about the target audience early in the process?
  • How can you ensure that your lesson reaches the right audience?


After completing this episode, participants should be able to…

  • Describe the importance of aligning lesson design with the intended audience.
  • Compose a list of prior knowledge required to follow a lesson.

Target Audience

Given the limited time in a short-format training, it is vital to define the scope of the lesson i.e. what people will know before and after the lesson. Thinking carefully about the target audience will help you with this and defining desired learning outcomes (the first step of the lesson design). Prominently displaying a description of the target audience will also help attract people with the right motivation and relevant prior knowledge to attend your workshops.


One of the most important things we can identify about our target audience is the level of expertise they will already have in relation to the skills taught by your lesson. In The Carpentries Instructor Training curriculum, we describe three different stages of skill acquisition: novice, competent practitioner, and expert and how it directly correlates to the complexity of mental models these different groups have about a domain/topic.

Briefly, the novice is someone who does not know what they do not know, i.e., they do not yet know what the key ideas in the domain are or how they relate, the competent practitioner has enough understanding of the domain/topic for everyday purposes, and the expert is someone who can easily handle situations that are out of the ordinary and can immediately use their prior knowledge or skills when presented with a new problem in the domain.

When designing a new lesson, it is important to think about the level of expertise that you expect learners to arrive with for two reasons:

  1. It helps to predict what prior knowledge and mental model learners will have of the lesson domain when they arrive. This can enable you to make progress quickly by
    1. working to help learners recall (activate) that prior knowledge1,
    2. building on the conceptual understanding they already have2 and,
    3. perhaps most importantly, giving you some idea of what misconceptions they might arrive with. It is vital that misconceptions are identified and corrected early on, before learners try to incorporate new knowledge into a broken mental model. (More on this in Stay On Target.)
  2. People at different stages of this process need to be taught differently. For example, novices will learn more from lessons that include worked examples and are more tutorial-like i.e. focused on a specific task, with step-by-step explanations of the process, but without a lot of extra information that is not directly relevant. However, the same approach may actually hinder learning for competent practitioners who may be distracted by a step-by-step explanation of something they already have the prior knowledge of3. For learners at this level of expertise, lessons which include activities offering learners the freedom to explore options and develop their own solutions, are likely to be more effective.


Furthermore, your lesson will be more effective if it aligns with the motivations of the target audience. Understanding the wants and needs of your target audience, what they know already and what kinds of problems they want to solve, will help you design a lesson that learners can see the value in. It will give them the impression that taking the lesson will be worthwhile (called positive expectancies in the literature).

We will look more at strategies to establish value and build positive expectancies in the next episode.

Be Specific

It can be tempting to identify a target audience only in vague terms, for example by writing that a lesson is aimed at “PhD students” or “early career researchers”. However, taking the time to focus on real people, or imagined personae, who represent your target audience will help you take time to consider the various aspects that can influence how much someone will learn from your lesson. It will also help you notice when the assumptions you are making about your target audience are unreasonable.

Most of all, it will help you stay connected to the fact that you are not your learners: they will arrive at the lesson with different priorities, interests, and challenges than your own.

Exercise: thinking about target audience (15 minutes total for both parts)

Part 1 (all, 5 minutes): think about a member of the target audience for your lesson, and answer the following questions in the context of your lesson topic:

  1. What is their background?
  2. What do they already know how to do?
  3. What do they want to do with the skills they will learn from your lesson?
  4. What problem will your lesson help them solve?

Share your answers with your collaborators. How do they compare? If you have identified different audiences, are they compatible? Or would your time be better spent focussing on one particular audience for this lesson?

Write 1-2 diagnostic questions, for use before the lesson is taught, to help you assess whether a respondent falls within the intended audience for your lesson.

Thinking more about target audience

There is more to consider about your target audience than we could capture with only the questions listed above. In your own time, you should think more about the other considerations you might need to make when writing a lesson for your audience.

For example, what vocabulary do they use? The terms you are teaching in your lesson might have a different meaning in your learners’ domain of expertise, and it can be helpful to prepare for and try to avoid confusion arising from this clash. Furthermore, might their primary language differ from yours? If so, how might this change the way you write the lesson?

Defining Prerequisite Knowledge

A very common challenge encountered in workshops is heterogeneity of expertise among the audience. When learners arrive at a workshop with a wide range of previous experience with the topic, it is difficult for the instructors to keep everyone engaged. Those who arrive with too little relevant knowledge and experience can struggle to follow the lesson content at the pace you expect, while those who arrive with too much are likely to become bored and despondent as their expectation of learning new skills is not met.

One way to try to guard against this is to publish the description of your target audience when you advertise a workshop teaching your lesson, alongside a list summarising the skills and conceptual knowledge you expect learners to arrive with. Another is to use the information you have about your target audience to ask questions of potential learners when they apply/register to join the workshop (like the diagnostic questionnaire you may have prepared in the exercise above), and use the answers they give to filter out those who fall outside your intended audience.

While valuable, this kind of pre-assessment should be approached with caution: people are often bad at self-assessment i.e. estimating our own ability to perform a task4. We can try to mitigate for this when designing the questions for a pre-workshop survey, leaving little room for inaccurate self-assessment to confound the results. But experience suggests it is very difficult to ensure that every learner in a workshop falls within the intended audience of a lesson.

Exercise: defining prerequisite knowledge (5 minutes)

Write a list of the skills/knowledge your learners will be required to have before they can follow your lesson.

If you are struggling with this exercise because your lesson audience is novices, think about skills like touch typing, using a web browser, or interacting with a command line or graphical interface. These are skills commonly overlooked by experts and competent practitioners.


  • We recommend an iterative lesson design process that begins with identifying the target audience, before defining learning outcomes, then creating assessments, writing explanatory content, and evaluating the lesson in a workshop.
  • Thinking about the target audience early in the design process helps to ensure that your lesson is built around the needs and motivations of real people.
  • Use the description of your target audience to help attract people with the appropriate interests and prior knowledge to your lesson.

  1. See chapter 1, How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?, of Ambrose et al. 2010.↩︎

  2. See chapter 2, How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?, of Ambrose et al. 2010.↩︎

  3. Kirschner et al. 2006↩︎

  4. Hacker et al. 2000↩︎