Diary Study:

The learning behaviours of university students

Student tapping on their computer.

Study Plan


In the sudden pivot to remote learning, it was assumed that mass quantities of new content is being rapidly created and delivered to students. Content is assumed to be organized and distributed on a variety of platforms.

For students then, the cognitive burden is placed on them to learn various learning tools.

This diary study tested the following assumptions. Five 3rd year university students participated in a 3 week study. Students were asked to record how they currently access and organize content, followed by how they might use an educational software as an alternative to organize content.


  • New content is rapidly produced and delivered to students

  • Various platforms are used to distribute content

  • Students are burdened with the need to learn new tools and platforms

  • Multiple platforms and tools must be used in order to successfully achieve academic goals

  • The provided educational software will remove the above burdens for students

Research Goals

  • Understand student’s current workflow, including:

    • How do students find information to achieve their academic goals.

    • How do students organize the information found.

    • How do students communicate and coordinate school-related information with one another.

  • Understand student’s workflow with the educational software

Research Questions

  • How do students navigate successfully achieving academic goals?

    • What are some of their academic goals?

    • What are the mechanisms that they use to achieve their academic goal?

    • What (if any) are students' current process to organize instructor’s content?

    • What are students' current process when trying to learn something asynchronously?

  • How does the provided educational software augment that experience?

    • Do students use it?

    • How often?

    • When do students use it?

    • What are their expectations of the tool?

    • Do students enjoy using the tool


The study was conducted in three parts:

  1. Thirty minute unled user interview using the Practical Empathy method. Listening session goals:

    • To understand participant academic goals and work conducted to achieve these goals

    • To learn their tools or strategies used to achieve their academic goals

  2. Semi-structured diary study:

    • Week one: Structured diary entries with focus on students' current method of accessing and organizing content.

    • Week two: Educational software introduced. Diary studies focused on reactions to specific tasks and functions within the software.

    • Week three: Unstructured diary entries. Students asked to use whichever tool they feel is best for their needs.

  3. Thirty-minute semi-structured interview. Listening session goals:

    • To clarify outstanding questions

    • Debrief with participants on their experience

Summary of Findings

Learning workflow of diary participants. Partial workflow seen above. Major steps include:

  1. Gather information

  2. Project and time management

  3. Retain and understand information

Participants used a variety of strategies to achieve their academic goal. Steps were consolidated into a learning workflow.

Step 1: Gather information

Participates noted their information gathering behaviours which they used when determining how they will structure their learning. Examples of these behaviours include:

  • Approaching support networks

  • Compiling course deadlines

  • Continuous information gathering throughout the term through unstructured communication systems

Step 2: Project and time management

During the course of this study, all participants used some type of project or time management technique, with a few sharing a change in their organizational strategy when their workload increased.

Step 3: Retain and understand information

All participants used a variety of methods to retain and understand their course material. Examples of these behaviours include:

  • Physical act of writing as part of their learning process

  • Applying course concepts to a case study

  • Daily skimming lecture notes and videos to keep concepts fresh in their minds

*Details of the diary study and observations related to the educational software have been purposefully omitted.


Based on participant learning behaviours, their workflow and process to retain and understand information, suggestions were provided to the educational software team on functions develop for future releases, design considerations on for the platform itself, and potential areas for future research.

Post study:

The company altered its roadmap from a broad focus with competing functions and narrowed its focus to more closely align to student needs and on what worked best for students based on the study results.