eCoaching Tip 60 Personalizing Learning Content so Students Grow with the Course Experiences

Sept 18, 2008; Checked April 10 2020

eCoaching Tip 60: Personalizing Learning Content so Students Grow with the Course Experiences

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

In designing courses most of us struggle with what seems to be an either-or choice; between (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 developing an “awareness”’ of issues.  On the other hand, we can design for personalized and customized problem-solving and projects that may leave students “clueless” about some aspects of the discipline. How do we choose?

Here are a few bullet points from the plethora of pedagogical advice for addressing the choice between covering content and engaging and personalizing learning. One or two of these ideas 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 to discover it.
  • Tell stories about how the content skills and knowledge are being used by successful professionals in business and in life.  The television series CSI and its spin-offs have sparked tremendous interest, for example, in forensic science.
  • Build rapport with your students — so that you know your students, When you know your students, you can link your content stories to their existing knowledge and experiences as well as their future goals.
  • 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.
  • Customize 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 eCoaching Tip 49 Learners as Leaders.)
  • A key learning principle for effective learning is to identify what students are ready to learn. This means identifying and building on each of your learner’s zones of proximal development as recommended by the Russian psychologist, Vygotsky.

Recall that all students and particularly, working professionals and adults “bring their own personalized knowledge, skills, and attitudes to the learning experience.” (Boettcher, 2003, 2007)  While it can be very time-consuming to get to know all of your learners and to assist them in applying and linking content, adult students can be challenged and tasked to do much of this as individual or small teamwork.

For example, if you are 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, consider making that an assignment and seek help from your students.

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 develop knowledge 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.  As you examine your course, you might identify 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, complex 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.  Envision this as a generous pie slice that includes the pie center. 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 interests and priorities. This approach to course content can also leverage the power of the learning community in a course as learners tap into different sections of the body of content.  Students’ 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 research on tools and strategies for personalizing learning are envisioning some of the following tools for our future teaching and learning experiences:

  • 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 (Similar to the holodeck on Star Trek; 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 you like to think broadly or are just a bit of a geek, be sure not to miss taking a look at this.

Making learning meaningful and significant is a joyful and wondrous experience.   Enjoy the journey with your students, and help make the content part of their lives forever.


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.  Retrieved on July 24, 2010 from

Boettcher, J. V. (1998, June, 1998). Let’s Boldly Go… to the Education Holodeck. Syllabus, Vol. 11 (No. 10), 18 – 22. Retrieved from

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

Boettcher, J. V. (2007). eCoaching Tip 43 Customizing and Personalizing Learning. Retrieved from

Chung Lee, Johnny. Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays using the WiiRemote Viewed July 24, 2010 at  (J. Lee is from Human-Computer Interactive Lab at Carnegie Mellon U.)

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 at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020