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June 23, 2007

E-Coaching Tip #49 (Summer 2007) Learners as Leaders

Learners as Leaders -- Fully-Engaged Learning

Part of our challenge as instructors is managing the delicate balance between directed learning and self-directed learning in a set of course experiences. One instructional strategy that can help this balance is to include learner-as-leaders experiences.

Providing opportunities for learners to take the lead in learning experiences for a group or the course community can provide a sense of empowerment that "is both a critical element and a desired outcome of participation in an online learning community" (Palloff and Pratt, 1999).

Learners-as-leaders experiences also shift the learner's mindset from viewing the instructor as the primary content authority to developing a mindset of him or herself as a valuable contributor to the learning experience. Learners then can see themselves as knowledge generators and connectors, not only for themselves, but also for the course community as a whole. Having learners lead activities also supports Vygotsky's theory of the zone of proximal development. As learners develop expertise, their zones move, shift and expand. Ideally, course experiences are designed with flexibility to be reshaped to adapt to these shifting zones.

As the shifts occur in the learner's mindsets and zones, the role of the instructor also shifts, from directing and telling to supporting, clarifying, critiquing, coaching and shaping. Simultaneously with this shift the instructor also learns more from the students.

When is the best time in a course for learner-led activities and what is a good sequence of steps for preparing these types of activities? This tip provides a few hints on designing and implementing a learner-as-leader activity.

Adequate Orientation and Planning Time

Learner-led activities generally succeed when learners are prepared; when expectations are clear and purposeful; when processes and procedures are explicit; and when the activities fit learners' zones of proximal development.

Here are some steps to include in your planning.

  • Many learners may need to be oriented to the idea of leading a class activity, such as a forum, discussion, role-play, debate or project. Start talking about the concept of learner-led activities from the very beginning of the course.
  • Provide learners with a detailed description of the activity and the expected outcomes and responsibilities for the learners. An overview of the activity with a link to the detailed directions often works well. More about describing outcomes and expectations is below.
  • Encourage learners to begin making choices about their planned learner-led activity after the first 25% of the course has been completed.
  • Provide time in the course calendar for learners to begin planning the activities around the middle of the semester.
  • Schedule instructor-team discussion time for the activities before the team is scheduled to lead an activity. Depending on the scope and complexity of the activity this discussion could be one week before or many weeks. The instructor serves as counselor and consultant in this discussion, keeping the focus on the outcomes and clear expectations.

Individual vs. Team-led Activities

The phrase "safety in numbers" is often true for learner-led activities. Learner-as-leaders activities can often be very effective as team-based activities. The teams should be small -- three to five members -- as this group size minimizes learners opting out of an activity. In fact, even teams of two work very well. There should also be intra-group accountability, which means that peers evaluate the participation quality of their fellow team members.

Making Outcomes Explicit

One of the most important aspects of student-led activities is to ensure that learners know what the purpose and outcomes of the activity are and how the outcomes fit into the larger context of the overall course plan. Once the outcomes from the instructor are clear and embraced by the learners, the learners can also develop additional goals or outcomes for the activity. The expected outcomes of an activity should also be stated in the syllabus so that learners know from the very beginning of the course what they will be expected to accomplish through their learner-led activity.

Choosing the Type of Activity

Gagne, Briggs and Wager (1992) describe five kinds of learning outcomes: intellectual skill, attitude, verbal information, cognitive strategy, and motor skill. Of these five, the first three types lend themselves best to learner-led activities because the activities can be more easily accomplished in an online learning environment than the last two.

Learners can lead a variety of instructional experiences. Some of the most common activities are to lead a group in a discussion, forum, or research topic. Other common activities are to work in teams on complex problems or projects; to prepare and execute debates, to role-plays key concepts, games, etc. Again the key for success is preparation, consultation, and clear expectations.

It should always be assumed that learners are novice activity leaders and therefore should be encouraged to keep their activity simple both from a pedagogical and technological perspective.

Checklist for a Learner-led Activity




  1. Are the learning outcomes for the activity clearly stated in the activity description or syllabus?

  1. Is the learner-led activity introduced with sufficient time for learners to begin planning it?

  1. Is the activity fully described with clear expectations, options and directions, including a rubric for the grading of the activity?

  1. Are learners provided several weeks to plan the activity?

  1. Does the topic activity provide enough range of choices so that learners can be creative in their choice and implementation of the activity?

  1. Does the participation grade include participation in the learner-led activities?

The process of designing and implementing a learner-led activity can be challenging, and it is possible to start simply by increasing the expectations for the usual roles in group work. Another very satisfying practice of learner-led activities includes work on current professional projects. But more on that in another tip.

Again, we enjoy hearing from you. Send your questions and requests. And remember you can contact us for help in planning your next course, revising a current one or even debriefing on your current one. As you plan your next course, here is a tip on simple reminders about course beginnings.

Note: This e-Coaching tip is derived from Empowering Learners to Lead by Conrad and Donaldson, 2003; Distance learning Conference at the University of Wisconsin, August, 2003. www.uwex.edu/disted/conference/Resource_library/handouts/03Info_P46.pdf


Kearsley, G. (2000). Online Education: Learning and Teaching in Cyberspace. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Knowles, M. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy (2nd edition). New York, NY: Association Press.

Meyers, C. and Jones, T. (1993). Promoting Active Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weigel, V. (2002). Deep Learning for a Digital Age. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

E-Coaching Tip #49 (Summer 2007) Learners as Leaders



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013