eCoaching Tip 49 Learners as Leaders

June 23, 2007 (Checked Nov 27 2019)

eCoaching Tip #49 Learners as Leaders

This tip includes another fundamentals tip as part of our quick reminder series.

Fundamentals Tip

As we are very close to the end of the summer term it is a good time to review the processes for wrapping up a course with a bit of style and a sense of accomplishment.  Here is the link to eCoaching Tip 29 Closing and Wrapping up a Course with Style.  Explore ways to wrap up your core concepts and lay a foundation for future learning.

Learners as Leaders — Fully-Engaged Learning

Now for our new topic, Learners as Leaders.  One of our challenges as instructors is managing the delicate balance between directed learning and self-directed learning. One instructional strategy that can help this balance is to use learner-as-leaders experiences.

Providing opportunities for learners to take the lead in learning experiences for a group or the full 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 and their fellow students as valuable contributors to the learning experience. This means that learners see themselves as knowledge generators and connectors for the course community. Having learners lead activities also supports Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development.  As learners develop expertise, their zones of proximal development move, shift and expand. Ideally, course experiences are designed with flexibility to adapt to these shifting zones.

As these shifts occur in the learner’s mindsets and zones, the role of the instructor also shifts.  Some of these shifts include shifting from directing and telling to supporting, clarifying, critiquing, coaching and shaping.

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 learner-as-leader activities.

Adequate Orientation and Planning Time

Learner-led activities generally succeed when expectations are clear and purposeful; when processes and procedures are explicit; and when learners are prepared, which usually means that the activities are a good fit to 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 and build it into the class assessment plan.
  • 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. Also doing a similar activity where you model your expectations is also helpful. More about describing outcomes and expectations is below.
  • If the learner-led activity is something that includes choices of topic for the learners, encourage learners to begin making choices about their planned learner-led activity early in the course term.This usually means sometime in the first quarter of the term.
  • Provide time in the course calendar and assignments for the learners to work on their learner-led activity.This is particularly important as learners may be responsible for these kinds of activities at different times during the term.
  • 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 — two to three members — as this group size minimizes learners opting out of an activity.  In fact, 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 also develop additional goals or outcomes for their activity. The expected outcomes of an activity should be included in some form 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, or to role-play key concepts and games.  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?
2.     Is the learner-led activity introduced with sufficient time for learners to begin planning it?
3.     Is the activity fully described with clear expectations, options and directions, including a rubric for the grading of the activity?
4.     Are learners provided sufficient time to plan and prepare for the activity?
5.     Does the topic activity provide enough range of choices so that learners can be creative in their choice and implementation of the activity?
6.     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 student’s current professional projects.  But more on that strategy will be in other tips.

Again, we enjoy hearing from you.  Send your questions and requests.  Remember you can contact me (Judith) for help in planning your next course, revising a current one or even mentoring on your current one.

Note: This e-coaching tip incorporates many ideas from the presentation Empowering Learners to Lead by Conrad and Donaldson at the 2003 Distance learning Conference at the University of Wisconsin, August, 2003.


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. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2 ed.): Jossey-Bass.

Note: These eCoaching 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, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita-Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2021