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March 3, 2006

E-Coaching Tip 6: Getting to Know Students Individually

This e-coaching tip is the second of three tips focusing on the role of faculty and students in online courses, and in particular, this tip focuses on ways of getting to know your students as individuals.

You have no doubt already asked your students to introduce themselves as is suggested in FAQ #4. You may want to take the opportunity at this point in the course to ask students to share the most -- valuable, difficult, insight, useful -- knowledge or skill that they have developed -- up to this point.

FAQ #5 talks about one of my favorite insights about online learning. That insight is that in some respects online learning is much better than classroom environments, because while we may not see "eye-to-eye" we actually learn our students well by meeting "mind-to-mind."

That last comment leads to a response to a question that came in to the e-coaches about the constructivist theory and its roots. In the tradition of intellectual history, there are many opinions. Some experts even trace the roots of constructivism to the philosophy of Socrates, who believed that learners already have the knowledge: and that we, as mentors to our students, ask the questions that result in learners coming to know what they know. More modern leading theorists -- over the last 100 years -- whose philosophy is constructivist in nature include John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Much more about Vygotsky and one of his key principles -- the zone of proximal development -- is discussed later in this FAQ. For those who would like to pursue more about constructivism and how it fits into learning theory, let me suggest these two links.

Next week's message will provide a few hints about Promoting Peer Interaction and Discussion.

As mentioned last week, we beginning the process of collecting additional questions that you might have for the summer courses. Please send questions or suggestions for FAQ questions to Judith and Rita and ecoach@designingforlearning.info.


E-Coaching Tips

Success Tip 6: The Roles of Faculty and Learners in Online Learning Environments -- Part Two of Three: Getting to Know Students Individually

4. How do I get to know learners individually in the online environment?

The tricks of the memory trade work online as well as in the physical face-to-face classroom. The best strategy is linking something personal, unique and unusual about the learner to the learner's name, personal goals, etc. This is another good reason to have a "Getting acquainted" or "Icebreaker" posting early in the course.

Learners can be encouraged to post something that will help you individualize them by asking the students something that will likely result in a memorable posting.

Here are a few suggestions as to questions to include in the Getting Acquainted posting.

  • What do you think is particularly unique about yourself?
  • What is your most memorable "ah-ha" learning moment, etc.
  • What is your highest priority goal for the course and why?
  • What's your best secret for being a successful online learner?
  • What do you have in common with at least one other learner here?

Another benefit that derives from discussion board activities is that learners individualize themselves through their writing. More on this is below.

5. How can I learn or assess each learner's state of understanding of core concepts, etc? In other words, how do I know what the learners know and are coming to know?

When first moving to the online environment, faculty worry about not being able to see "eyeball-to-eyeball" with the students in their classes. We like to think that the online environment -- by sharing what is in each learner's head --that we can actually do even better. Through student's written questions and answers, we can develop "mind-to-mind" connections and really find out what is in students' heads and what they are thinking.

One of our favorite core learning principles is derived from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky's (1978) concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. This principle asserts, "Every learner has a zone of proximal development that defines the space that a learner is ready to develop into useful knowledge."

Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development includes the general concept of readiness, but it also suggests that each learner's zone or openness to a particular learning experience might be fairly narrow. Thus a "window of learning opportunity" may be smaller than what we think. When students say they are "totally lost," they are probably expressing the feeling of being outside their zone.

The concept of this zone is both comforting and scary and overwhelming. It leads to questions such as, "How do we determine a learner's zone of proximal development?" and "How do we know what kinds of problems students are ready to tackle? And "How can I possibly design experiences to meet each of my learner's zone of proximal development?"

Low-stake quizzes, discussion boards asking specific questions about what questions or insights students have developed, short audio or written reports, and small team assignments are all tools that can help faculty get a glimpse of what learners know at points within the course. These are tools that help us determine more precisely the understandings or misconceptions of students.

For example, after each week or two, you might ask your students to post on a discussion board the most important question that is still confusing or puzzling to them. Or what question do they not want to answer on a test?!

Once faculty get glimpses into the state of learners' knowledge structures from student responses, testing and postings, faculty can integrate feedback, examples, and demonstrations earlier and more consistently throughout a course. Learners themselves are good resources for clarifying and expanding concepts for other learners.

As noted in the section on projects, learners can do a good job of matching experiences to their own zone of proximal development by virtue of the choices of projects and their involvement in those projects.

Note: Vygotsky defines a learner's student's zone of proximal development (ZPD) as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under the adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (1978, p. 86).


Boettcher, J. V. 2003. Course management systems and learning principles: Getting to know each other. Syllabus, July, 2003, 33-36. www.campustechnology.com/article.asp?id=7888

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

E-Coaching Tip 6: Getting to Know Students Individually



Ecoaching Table of Contents



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