eCoaching Tip 101 The Power of Choice to Energize Learning

 August 31 2012

eCoaching Tip 101:  The Power of Choice to Energize Learning

This tip launches a new series of ecoaching tips featuring current faculty. Featured faculty will share their teaching stories and experiences, but perhaps more importantly, the practical strategies that they use to enrich their online courses.

Alyson Lyon has graciously agreed to be our inaugural featured instructor. Alyson will talk about today’s topic, designing choice into our courses, and share how she integrates learner’s choice into herMLLS 717 Leading People and Managing Relationships course.

Designing in Choice in Learning

Why would we want to build choices into our learning designs? Don’t we have to stay really focused on the specified core learning outcomes? There are many reasons for designing in choices. One reason is that choices encourage learner-centered decisions about their own goals, interests and values, while we still ensure rigor and attention to required learning outcomes. Another reason is that it reduces stress by giving learners choices as to where they focus their learning energies. A third reason is that providing choices to learners is supported by no less than three significant pedagogical theories: Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development;John Seely Brown’s cognitive apprenticeshiptheories and K. Anders Ericsson’s theory of developing expertise.

In this tip Alyson Lyon shares how she builds choice into her course, MLLS 717 Leading People and Managing Relationships. But first a little about Alyson.

Alyson is an executive leadership coach and business consultant, a founding partner and president of Higher View Coaching and Consultingin Pittsburgh. She is a certified executive coach, business consultant, advisor and retreat leader. Alyson has been teaching with SLPA since 2008 and in addition to teaching MLLS 717, also teaches CLDR 499W Organizational Leadership: Capstone Seminar.

Learning Goals

Alyson and I chatted by phone and we first talked about the learning goals for her course. The course description includes the following: “Demonstrateeffective use of self as an instrument of change and design strategies for realizing change in self and others through conscious intervention and personal influence.” The course goals also include building awareness of the “emerging theories of emotional intelligence and self-leadership as they are applied in today’s fluid organizational contexts.”

Given these goals, I asked Alyson if she could identify the two really “big things”  — the core concepts, views, and experiences — that she wanted her students to “get” from her course.

Taking a moment or two for reflection, Alyson said,

“The one thing I want them to get out of the class is how to be successful at leading personal and professional change… and to know how to achieve their desired results based on mindful action in relationships and learning.”

“For example, if a student is a business manager who has a team that is not working collaboratively or the team doesn’t have effective communication skills, the student might decide to use this issue for their term-long change project. The student applies the intentional change model to achieve the desired change in these steps: Recognizing the core problem, defining the ideal outcome, and then applying an intentional process of mindful decision-making regarding relationships and learning. The student uses this change process to identify small intentional behavioral changes that they, as the leader can make, to influence and impact the change.”

The learning experiences that are designed to achieve the desired results in the change project is a series of papers in which the student describes the “different stages of moving through the change process, and understanding the necessary political savvy to leverage the relationships ingrained in the change.” The last paper in the series is an “individual development plan designed to support the students’ ongoing success in the change process after the end of the semester.”  The course readings, discussions and collaboration support the integration and application of discipline knowledge to their particular change project.

Alyson concluded by adding, “I work very hard (early in the course) to make sure the students are working on a meaningful change project that they truly want to accomplish and will continue to work on after the end of the term.”

This interaction between Alyson and each of her students is a really important part of the choice process in this course. This is an iterative process occurring over time. It requires the student to work hard to identify and choose a change that is meaningful to them. I was struck by Alyson’s comment that she would remind students that they would be focusing on this change for the full series of papers for the course and it was really important that they choose well.

It does happen that occasionally students find that their selected change project doesn’t work for them, and Alyson makes accommodation for this. In one instance, a student willingly and enthusiastically added more readings and work so that he could focus on a change directed at a family relationship rather than an organizational change issue. Alyson said he read so much additional reading to expand his awareness that she was challenged to keep up with him as he was so energized by the opportunity to focus on something very dear to him.

The Change Model to be Learned and Used

Alyson shared that the change model learned and used by the students is the Intentional Change Model from the course text by Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee: Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion.

As we talked about designing in choices, it became obvious that this course is designed around a course-length project that is very meaningful to the student. The students choose to focus on a change that is close to them, that they have some control over and that is significant for their long term success and confidence.

Not all courses have this ability to focus entirely on a change process that is so intimately meaningful, but there are ways we can build in close approximations, I believe, in expanding course choices of readings, discussion forum questions, and small team projects. A list of these opportunities for choice comes just a little later in this tip.

The Second Major Learning Outcome

Before leaving Alyson’s course story, let’s continue on to the second “big thing” that Alyson hopes that her students develop.  Alyson shared that a second major goal for her students is to have them understand the “the value of giving solid feedback, receiving solid feedback, and caring enough about a person to interact with them on a level so they can be successful in reaching their desired results.”

Alyson uses peer feedback to accomplish this goal. Each student has their own discussion board within Blackboard. They use this discussion board to post their updates and papers on how their designated change project is progressing and how they are integrating the learning from the class into accomplishing their desired results. Students are required to post written feedback for two of their peers following each of the four written assignments posted in the discussion board.

I asked Alyson how she structured this peer-to-peer collaboration to ensure that all students got feedback on their change project work. I was wondering whether she built in choice here as well. Listen to her heartwarming response. “Interestingly, I’ve never had a class that didn’t provide more feedback than required, or a class that did not encircle a struggling student to coach them through the process. It is truly the most rewarding part of teaching this course for me.”

More “Choice Points” in Online Courses

Here is a listing and description of nine choice points that you might consider using in your online courses.

Course Beginnings

  1. Your getting acquainted posting can provide choices in what they share, including items as pictures, family, fun and work for building social presence.
  2. In the first week posting on learning outcomes, learners can share a personalized and customized learning goal for the course, building cognitive presence.
  3. In the first week, you can discuss the course structure, assignments and expectations and adjust as makes sense to ensure the structure aligns with their needs, expectations, and goals while meeting course goals.
  4. In all the discussion forums, you can provide choices in the questions to be addressed and/or in the types of analysis or response suggested.

Early middle of a course

  1. Provide choices of differentiated assignments and content resources based on personal learning goals and readiness. This means, for example, assigning core readings and resources to be studied by all and providing other readings and resources from which students can choose, depending on their personal course goals.
  2. Create opportunities and choices for peer interaction. Team assignments and peer revieware powerful community building and assessment tools, but they’re not for everyone. Be flexible on how each are used in your course.
  3. Build leadership opportunities. Not all learners need to be assessed in identical tasks. Some students may want to lead a seminar or discussion forum, others may prefer to demonstrate their learning through by writing a summary or conducting an interview.

Late middle of course

  1. Customize and personalize projects. Working adults in particular will proactively work on projects that have meaning for them. A project proposal process early in the course helps to ensure a good learning and interest fit. Alyson’s story is a great example of this.
  2. Offer peer review opportunities. Peer review of project proposals, projects-in-process, and finished projects helps build community, extend learning, and reduce grading burdens and unwelcome surprises.

Course Wrap-up

  1. Provide choices for project sharing. End-of-course wrap-ups often include project presentations. Encourage your learners to select from a range of project types, including podcasts, wikis, journals, interviews, and research or white papers.

Wrapping up Choice

The instructional benefits for student choice is that students can develop knowledge, skills and confidence by choosing resources and projects that support their personal goals, adding passion, energy and inspiration into their learning experiences.

In practical terms for online courses, it means designing options and choices within learning experiences, assignments, and special projects, yet always designing for alignment of the essential learning outcomes with learning activities and assessments that show evidence of learning.

Note: As we launch this new series, please suggest a favorite topic or strategy of your own that you would like to share with your fellow online colleagues, or nominate one of your colleagues. You can do this by contacting David McGeehan, Jim Ulrich or Mark Prestopnik, or by emailing me at


Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion(1 ed.): Harvard Business Review Press

Boettcher, J. V. (2010) Teach More Effectively with Customizing Learning Experiences.Magna Seminars.Summarized by Mary Bart in a faculty Focus posting at

Boettcher, J. V. E-Coaching Tip 43 Customizing and Personalizing Learning.  Retrieved August 28 2012 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher