eCoaching Tip 6 Getting to Know Your Students

March 3, 2006 (Refreshed Sep 27, 2012; reviewed Nov 17 2018)

eCoaching Tip 6: Getting to Know Your Students

When you first decided to teach online one of the first questions that likely popped into your head was, “How will I get to know my students if I don’t see them or meet them face-to-face?”  Surprisingly, after teaching a few online courses many faculty observe, “Wow, I get to know my online students better than I get to know my campus students!” How is this possible?

Getting to know your students online is quite easy and natural with just a few key design practices. One of my favorite insights about online learning is that while we may not see “eye-to-eye” we actually get to know our students quite well by meeting “mind-to-mind.” Think about Spock’s Vulcan mind meld in the 1960’s Star Trek series.

This tip uses the FAQ format to describe design practices that make getting to know your students online and building relationships and community a regular and easy to accomplish delight.

1. 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. In the first few days of a course, the best strategy is linking something personal, unique and unusual about the learner to the learner’s name, personal goals, or place. The practice of having a “Getting acquainted” or “Icebreaker” forum as one of the first postings is a natural way to do this.  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.  Pictures and images are particularly gripping and helpful.

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

  • 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 that you have already discovered?

Other suggestions include postings pictures of themselves, their pets or a favorite gadget or person, book, or movie.  As we have gained more experience with online learning we have also discovered how learners reveal a great deal of themselves through their writing styles and observations. More on this later.

One faculty member shared her technique for getting to know — and remember — students individually. This technique or  variation of this might work for you.

“I keep a “cheat list” in the front of my classroom folder with my syllabus and weekly guides and keep identifying info about each student, such as state of residence (helpful for time zone reminders), family, work, and unique ideas. When I refer back to the info in my discussions with them, they think I have a marvelous memory.” J

This suggestion reminds me of the power of connections with others. Having grown up in Minnesota and having lived in Wisconsin, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania at different times, each of those experiences has the power to increase my connection with others. When in Houston for a conference, for example, I met a person from a small college in New Ulm, MN, a small town south of “the Twin Cities.” When I shared that I had grown up in Minneapolis, he was almost visibly psychically more comfortable with where he was. Simple familiar associations are powerful bonding mechanisms and can serve as a basis for customizing and making learning experiences more enjoyable.

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

As briefly mentioned above, when first moving to the online environment, faculty worry about not being able to see “eyeball-to-eyeball” with the students in their classes. I 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 work and through a student’s interactions with us and their peers, we can develop “mind-to-mind” connections and really find out what is in students’ heads and what they are thinking.

One of my 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 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 comforting, scary and overwhelming, all at the same time. 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?”

3.  What are some strategies for getting to know students’ zones of proximal development?

We have many tools and spaces in the online classroom for getting to know our students. First of all, the discussion forums are the main source of information. By reading student’s responses to assigned activities and also seeing how students respond to their peers, getting a sense of where students are in their understanding of concepts is quite straightforward.  Forums can also be used for students to post specific questions that they have or what insights they may have developed. Such questions and insights can also be posted in journals and blogs that are reviewed periodically, either privately between the faculty member and learner or publicly.

Other tools that are highly recommended for getting to know students’ state of knowledge are low-stake quizzes that focus on objective discipline knowledge.  These quizzes, once developed, are automatically scored with appropriate feedback to learners. Other tools are similar to those that might be used in classroom courses: short audio or written reports, and small team assignments. Any of these tools or learning strategies 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.

Once faculty get glimpses into the state of learners’ knowledge structures from discussion postings, tests and responses, 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 tips 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.

Background on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

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).

For those who would like to pursue more about Vygotsky and his learning theory of social development, let me suggest this resource:

  • This links directly to a description of Vygotsky’s theory of social development. Vygotsky is also one of the learning theorists with roots in constructivism.  Be sure to explore this site, Instructional Design, which is a significant web resource for learning theories and instructional design. This is a useful reference database that includes the Theory in Practice (TIP) guide originally developed by Greg Kearsley. Here is a graphic illustrating the zone of proximal development from the above site:  
  • Another useful resource that compares three key 20thcentury learning theories— behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism was developed by Nada Dabbagh at George Mason University – theorists,%20Cognitive%20Psychology%20and%20Constructivism.htm

Dabbagh, N. (2005). Pedagogical models for E-Learning: A theory-based design framework. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 1(2), 25-44. 


Getting to know our students is at the heart of any teaching and learning experience. So as we design online learning, we want to focus on those design practices that ensure that learners do, think, and use the content while we are there to coach learners in the uses of that knowledge.

References and Notes

Boettcher, J. V. (2003). Course management systems and learning principles: Getting to know each other. Syllabus, July 2003, 33-36.  Retrieved September 27 2012 from

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2004). Faculty Guide for Moving Teaching and Learning to the Web. 2nd ed.League for Innovation. Phoenix, AZ,

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016). The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2 ed.). San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass. Note:  Chapter 1 in this book describes key learning theories and theorists and how they are linked and influence teaching methods and strategies. (2012). Social Development Theory (L. Vygotsky).   Retrieved from

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

Note: The Vulcan mind meld was a telepathic link between two individuals, allowing for the exchange of thoughts, thus in essence allowing the participants to become one mind.

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 – 2019