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Sept 18, 2008

E-Coaching Tip 60 (#2 Fall 2008)

Personalizing Learning Content so that Students Grow with the Course Experiences

Is your course meaningful to your students or are they just swimming through a pool of content? When the course ends, will they wipe themselves off and toss a content towel aside, scattering the bits and pieces of your course about and emerge with no perceptible content growth or new skills?

In teaching we always struggle between the challenge of either (1) "covering" the content or (2) engaging the learners in problem-solving and simulations. On the one hand, we can "cover" the content with students only developing "awareness"'; on the other hand, designing for personalized and customized problem-solving and projects can leave students "clueless" about some aspects of the discipline. What to do?

Here are a few bullet points from the plethora of pedagogical advice for addressing the challenge of "covering content" and engaging and personalizing learning." One or two of these might really hit the mark for you and your course!

  • Be explicit about the potential value of the content to your particular students and work with them for them to discover it as well!
  • Tell stories about the importance of the content and how it is being used by successful professionals in business and in life (The television series CSI has sparked tremendous interest, for example, in forensic science) and how it is useful.
  • Build rapport with your students -- so that you know your students, When you know your students, you can link your content stories to their knowledge and experiences as well as future goals
  • Use analogies and examples from previous experiences of the group as a community (See the next item)
  • Design your course so that learners share content experiences with case studies, creating a resource of "story referencing" as in "the Walmart story or in the Apple story or Google or Hewlett Packard, for example. Such "story referencing" creates a sense of community and shorthand communications.
  • Customizing assignments and projects for your students so that students can work in teams and on topics that advance their desired knowledge and skills (For more about this, see Tip #49 on Learners as Leaders from summer, 2007.)
  • A key learning principle for effective learning is to identify what students are ready to learn. This means identifying each of your learner's zones of proximal development. (Remember Vygotsky!) And build on that zone!

Recall that all students and particularly, working professionals and adults " bring their own personalized knowledge, skills, and attitudes to the learning experience." (Boettcher, 2003) While it can be very time-consuming to get to know all the students and apply and link content for the students, adult students can be challenged and tasked to do much of this for themselves and as members of small teams. Looking for a great story about the value of a key concept such as making use of the new social networking tools for communications in business? Challenge your students! Or maybe just a team of two!

Types of Content Resources -- Ensuring the Learning of Core Concepts

What can you do to increase student engagement and integration of the course content, but still ensure that students are aware of the core concepts? Here's one strategy: Take a fresh look at your course content and identify the core concepts and principles. All other course content is application, practice and integration. All content is not equal or particularly important!

One model for examining the content in your course is shown in the graphic called Types of Content Resources.

The innermost layer represents the core concepts in a course. This is foundational content. (If you examine your course, you might determine no more than ten core concepts that truly form the framework and are undeniably fundamental concepts.) The second content layer focuses on initial practice experiences applying the core concepts to simple problems; the third, experiences using the core concepts to solve novel problems; and the fourth, experiences of students' own choosing applying concepts.

The goal for all students is to master a slightly off-center slice of the pie that includes the whole of the core concepts. The dotted lines indicate the slice of the course content that one student might master. As a student develops expertise in the content experiences, a student will increasingly be directing and customizing the learning according to their own needs and priorities. This content approach also illustrates the power of the learning community in a course as learners tap into different sections of the body of content. Student lives and experiences bring some content to the foreground; other content remains in the background and might not be part of any one course.

The Future of Personalizing Learning -- For the Experienced Online Instructor

Ongoing technological research on tools and strategies for personalizing learning are working on some of the following tools for our future teaching and learning:

  • Creating rich databases of content so that learners have ready access to practice, applications, examples and stories that match their "zones"
  • Creating assessments that respond, adapt to learners to more quickly identify a learners' skill set (Adaptive testing)
  • Creating multiple "paths" through course content so that students can self-select experiences that map to their current, past or desired future life environments
  • Using authoring tools such as Cognitive Tutor Authoring Tools (CTAT) to create virtual tutors for real-world use and use in experimental scenarios (Aleven, V., Sewall, J., McLaren, B. M., & Koedinger, K. R. (2006)
  • Building complex virtual reality learning environments (VR) that shape and respond to learner's interactions (Think the Star Trek Holodeck!) (Boettcher, 1999). If you want to personalize your reading and get an early look at some of the "content-to-be" check out the affordable VR environment described in a video by J. C. Lee (2007) at Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays using the WiiRemote at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd3-eiid-Uw. If you like to think broadly or are just a bit of a geek, be sure not to miss taking a look at this!

Do you have teaching strategies that you find effective in personalizing and customizing learning? Write to us (Judith Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad) at ecoach@designingforlearning.info.


Aleven, V., Sewall, J., McLaren, B. M., & Koedinger, K. R. (2006). Rapid authoring of intelligent tutors for real-world and experimental use. In Kinshuk, R. Koper, P. Kommers, P. Kirschner, D. G. Sampson, & W. Didderen (Eds.), Proceedings of the 6th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2006), (pp. 847-851). Los Alamitos, CA: http://ctat.pact.cs.cmu.edu/pubs/CTAT-ICALT2006.pdf

Boettcher, J. V. (1998). Let's Boldly Go... to the Education Holodeck. Syllabus. Vol. 11: 18 - 22. Watch for this at www.designingforlearing.info/

Boettcher, J. V. (2003). Course management systems and learning principles --- Getting to know each other…. Syllabus. 16: 33-36. http://www.campustechnology.com/article.asp?id=7888

Chung Lee, Johnny. Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays using the WiiRemote http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd3-eiid-Uw (J. Lee is from Human-Computer Interactive Lab at Carnegie Mellon U.)

E-Coaching Tip 43 (Summer 2007) Customizing and Personalizing Learning

Personalizing Learning Content so that Students Grow with the Course Experiences



Ecoaching Table of Contents



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