Sharon Guan

Becoming a Learning Coach with DESIRE

The concept of a “learning coach” was introduced by Dr. Jose Bowen during his keynote speech at the 2014 DePaul Annual Teaching and Learning Conference while discussing the new role of a college professor.  When the knowledge held in the brain of a professor can no longer compete with the phone that is in the hand of a student, as he humorously pointed out, maybe it’s time to think about what makes a professor the most valuable.  During his presentation, Dr. Bowen called everyone’s attention to a painful reality: the vastly available content delivered through the Internet free of charge is depriving the professor of the privilege of being the knowledge owner and resource!  The value of a “residential” professor—verses the ones teaching to the world via the Internet—lies in the fact that s/he can be actively involved in the learning process with the students by monitoring and guiding them to the end result.  That role, as Bowen put it, would be a “learning coach”.

This new reality depicted by Bowen is indeed very painful. After Bowen’s keynote presentation, a concerned professor told me that he felt bad about having to adopt the role of a “coach” after years of studying and researching in his discipline. Although he acknowledges Bowen’s notion to be true, he believes the change to be a major downgrade to his career classification.

Bowen’s keynote presentation and the concerned professor’s comments left me pondering about my own role as an administrator of a faculty support unit.  What can we do to help faculty that are transitioning from a  “sage on the stage” or “a guide on the side” to a “learning coach”?  Perhaps the starting point should be what Confucius suggested in society building–to define the roles.   How should we define the role of a “learning coach”?   Above and beyond having the content knowledge, what should a learning coach be able to do?  My inquiry resulted in six action verbs: to diagnose, to engage, to strategize, to inspire, to reward, and to evaluate; which can be “acronymized” into one word–DESIRE.  DESIRE


One thing that the majority of the free online courses (such as a MOOC) don’t do is to diagnose the problems encountered by students and adjust the teaching based on the findings.  Although adaptive learning has been a buzz word for web-content publishers, a learning tool that can diagnose learner challenges and tailor the teaching accordingly is rare to find.  With the opportunity to interact directly with students, a learning coach can identify problems by observing and communicating with students, or by designing diagnostic activities with the help of technology, such as online survey and mobile pulling. Until robot technology and artificial intelligence can reliably analyze every learner, this step of diagnosis will continue to add an irreplaceable value in higher learning.


Motivating students to learn may not be perceived as the role of faculty who, as Bowen pointed out, “became faculty in part because they are intrinsically motivated by academic pursuits.”  Now, that students are constantly distracted and overwhelmed by information funneled through their hand-held devices, that magical appeal to learn from the expert is fading.  To make learning happen, a professor/learning coach has to be a motivation expert who is able to draw students’ attention with vivid speech, exciting activities, and fun assignments.

While writing this blog, I caught my seven-year-old burying herself in a math assignment.   I know she doesn’t like math and the assignment she was doing was not a “must-do” homework assignment, but she insisted on finishing it because it was a puzzle!   In order to solve the puzzle (see below), she needed to do the subtraction, find the letter based on the given number and fill in the blanks.  I looked at her puzzle and smiled in admiration to the assignment creator, who had done such a great job “tricking” my little one into learning math.

Solve the Puzzle By inventing engaging learning activities, learning coaches are the ones who have all the “tricks” in their pockets which allows them to use many ingenious ways to induce an internal motivation. There will be trial and error, what works for some may not work for others, but one way or the other, they motivate the students to learn.


To strategize means making a strategy to achieve a goal.  Just like winning a game relies greatly on the coach’s ability to design a game plan, to achieve a learning goal depends critically on the plan and methodologies devised by the learning coach.  After being exposed to so many online resources during our DePaul Online Teaching Series (DOTS) program, faculty would ask us, “So what do we do?  Why do they (the students) still need us?”

When I brought the same question to my own class, one of the students said, “We want to hear about Granita!”

Granita is that seven-year-old girl of mine who hates math, but loves to solve puzzles. She also stages situation comedy in my home all of the time. Many of her episodes are related to Chinese learning or Chinese culture.  Sharing her stories with the class in Chinese has been a routine exercise of my Chinese language class.  I told my students that if they really are motivated to learn Chinese, they don’t need me; but if they are not or if they are seeking for a fun way of learning it (besides earning the credits), stay with me.  In teaching this class, I feel more like a strategist who sets a goal and seeks various meanings or routes to achieve it.  I am no longer an expert of the subject, but an expert on how to learn the subject.


Dr. Bowen asserted that students learn better when the instructor demonstrates passion in the subject.  A learning coach is the one who not only has a passion in the subject matter, but also the ability to spread it among students.   Cultivating an interest in the topic among all students should remain a hidden (or open) agenda for all instructors.  Dr. Bowen, for example, expects students to fall in love with Jazz after his class.  It is important that a learning coach projects a high degree of energy and deep affection in the subject or in learning in general.


Recognizing and rewarding students is another critical role played by a learning coach.   A study that supports Dweck’s Self Theory showed that it is more effective to praise students’ efforts than their achievements.  A learning coach rewards students with encouraging comments, “try-again” opportunities (i.e. multiple quiz attempts), and points for efforts (instead of outcomes).


A learning coach validates learning–something that a MOOC cannot do.  By evaluating the outcome of learning, a learning coach makes the final judgment on the degree to which learning has been accomplished.

When I first heard of the book Teaching Naked, I was a bit shocked by its title.  As I started to read it, I found that the sensational effort carried by its title is well maintained in the content as well.  When technology is profoundly changing education, the value of higher education is now on the interpersonal interaction between professors and students. This new way of teaching without technological mediation requires a professor to serve in the role as a learning coach–a coach who can teach naked, with DESIRE.


Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a Learning Coach with DESIRE

  1. Very informative article. However, I am not sure that I entirely agree with the points outlined under “E” or “Engaged,” the second letter of the acronym “DESIRE.” For example, one sentence reads: “By inventing engaging learning activities, learning coaches are the ones who have all the “tricks” in their pockets which allows them to use many ingenious ways to induce an internal motivation.” This statement addresses the value of creating engaging learning activities to stimulate internal motivation, but does not address the impact of external motivation, or outside factors that motivate a student to learn regardless of any “tricks” employed by “learning coaches.” Also, using the word “tricks” as a figure of speech seems to imply that students do not learn willingly, and that there are no internal or external motivating factors already in place at the beginning of the learning experience. It appears that motivating the student is strictly the job of the instructor, without any consideration given to additional motivating factors that occur both inside of and outside of the classroom, irrespective of any learning activities. Lastly, as you indicated, what works for some may not work for others, which is true. The motivational strategies that work for a seven-year-old may or may not work for an adult learner who is transitioning to a new career or returning to the workforce after an extended period of unemployment, for example. As an online professor, my experience has been that adult learners face special challenges from both a personal and a professional standpoint that often strengthen their motivation to learn (especially if they are transitioning to a new career), regardless of (or in addition to) the level of engagement created by the instructor through learning activities. These are just some points that came to mind based on this particular letter in the acronym. Thank you again for a comprehensive article.

  2. I like the thought and thinking you shared here, particularly the “engage” and “strategize” parts. language learners may need more “inspire” to prompt them to think why they are learning a foreign language. language can shape their identity in a way no other subject areas of knowledge can do.

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