eCoaching Tip 13 Re-shaping Habits for Learning Online

May 12, 2006 (Revised July 20 2012; reviewed May 4 2019)

eCoaching Tip 13: Re-shaping Habits for Learning Online

We sometimes forget to pay attention to how different the experiences of learning online are from learning in a campus environment. The cluster of learning habits and skills needed for online learning include planning, discipline, writing and proactive thinking. It’s natural for students to require time and experience to develop the learning habits that work well in this more self-directed environment. Obviously, the same can be said for the need for time and experience for faculty to develop new habits.

This tip provides some suggestions for coaching and training students in the habits that work well in online learning. It also includes some of the best practices for faculty for supporting learners in this environment.

Best Practice #3  of the ten best practices for teaching online is the practice of being very clear, being very explicit in what you expect of your students.  A corollary to this best practice is to be very explicit about your own work habits and schedule. This helps allay anxiety and concern from students because they know when you will probably be reading discussion forum posts or available for telephone, text or chat room conversations. Students in a campus class have this information built in by virtue of the campus meeting schedule and office hours; students in an online class do not have that structure, so it is essential to be up front and explicit about that information, including publishing virtual office hours. Being explicit extends to those times when unexpected emergencies arise or when planned travel might interrupt your normal “online” schedule.

Similarly, it is good to expect these types of schedule communications from your students when it makes sense. If they are going to be traveling or have significant work or family events that will likely interfere with their normal schedule of learning responsibilities, it is good for them to share that as needed. Obviously this is a “need to know” determination to avoid over communicating or “TMI” (too much information) in netspeak.

Communication Habits to Encourage

Here are additional suggestions regarding communication habits to be encouraged in an online course.

Many students in campus courses like approaching faculty and asking questions in a one-on-one situation. While this can be good when the question deals with confidential information, questions in online courses are best posted in the discussion forums. So when a student sends an email with a good question, thank the student for the question, and ask them to post it in one of the forums. Then answer the question openly as quickly as possible. One former colleague of mine was very strict with her students. She had a policy of only handling content questions within the “online classroom.” When students emailed her with a content question, she might reply the first time with a kind reminder to post the question online. Over time, the replies might get very short.

If you have students  who are not getting into the habit of using open forum areas for student questions and conversations, you might want to post a question, challenge or observation to “prime the pump.”  Or you could use a well-honored technique of arranging for a few students individually to post questions.

Another suggestion is to have the group of students name an informal question space for themselves. For example, in some courses, this space is called The Cyber Café, The Water Cooler, or simply, The Question Place.  I like a name that suggests an informal gathering space where students can “think aloud, “ exchange process ideas, or just “bond” and network with each other.

Principle of a Balance of the Three Dialogues

Keep in mind the goal of balancing the three types of dialogue for learning experiences A good rule of thumb is that one-third of a course dialogue is what faculty teach students; one-third is what students teach students and one-third is learned in individual work using course resources, including reading, individual writing, and laboratory work (Moore, 1989; Pelikan, 1992).

The faculty-student dialogue somewhat depends on how much the faculty member is “talking” via their writing, summarizing and providing feedback to students.  With more research on the best practices and tools for teaching online, we may well see the percentage of dialogue from the faculty to learner to be even less, as faculty assume more habits of facilitation,  coaching and mentoring. The particular percentage,  of course, is not as important as achieving a balance of dialogue, so that the faculty member is not the one doing the majority of the talking.

Keep in mind the related principle that when the faculty member is talking, the student needs to be very actively processing the flow of information from the faculty member to effect a change in the students’ knowledge structures.

A research study by Kim and Moore (2005) on factors affecting student satisfaction in an online course affirms the value of student-to-student dialogue.  The study found that “students’ interaction with classmates and their instructor have an impact on their satisfaction with Web–based courses.”  The online communication tools that now surround us enable us to reach out, talk, question and confer in virtual study groups, making balancing of the dialogue much easier and richer than ever.


Developing effective online learning habits takes time, patience and persistence to learn the etiquette and to match communication needs to the tools. By investing time in learning good online habits, we lay the groundwork for the social learning theory of Vygotsky (1978) that states, “Learning is a social activity that involves interaction with the instructor and among students.” Without this social component of online learning, learners feel isolated, and learning lacks the stimulation, and critical or positive feedback from others.

Effective online learning habits require developing self–directed and social learning habits that encourage engagement and ownership of the learning process. So while we as faculty need to encourage learner-to-learner interaction, we need to continue to improve our instructional strategies to make that interaction constructive and dynamic.


Boettcher, J. V. (2003). Course management systems and learning principles —— Getting to know each other…. Syllabus/Campus Technology 16(12), 33-36. Retrieved from

Kim, K. S., & Moore, J. L. (2005). Web–based learning: Factors affecting students’ satisfaction and learning experience.  First Monday, 10(11 (November, 2005)). Retrieved from

Moore, M. (1989). Three Types of Interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3, 1-7. doi:10.1080/08923648909526659

Pelikan, J. (1992). The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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

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