Promoting Personalization

I recently finished reading Jose Antonio Bowen’s book Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection (2021). The book presents a deep dive into cognition and discusses how our roles as instructional leaders can foster supporting learning spaces where students can thrive. As the title suggests, Bowen believes that one critical way to create independent thinkers is to form positive relationships with our students. He presents a ton of research on the science of emotion and outlines how teachers can create better conditions for learning when we spend less time delivering information and more time getting to know the students with whom we’re working.

One of the “teaching hacks” that Bowen outlines that can foster student relationships is personalization. Personalization, Bowen contends, can impact both student mindset and motivation. When students receive more personalized communication from their teachers, they’re more inclined to listen, pay attention, and engage with course content. I was introduced to the “personalization” concept a few years ago at an online teaching conference and have been incorporating different pesonalization techniques in my classes. While Bowen introduces a few personalization strategies I haven’t tried before, there are a bunch that I’ve used in my face-to-face and online classes. Although I haven’t really assessed the impact on student learning, they seem to have an impact on student engagement and participation. Here’s what I’ve tried:

Use student names. I’m a big proponent of using student names in my classes. In face-to-face classes, I hand out name tents so I can easily remember students’ names. In my online classes, I regular begin my replies to discussion board posts with students’ first names. Bowen writes that using students’ names “reduces threat assessment and encourages paying attention” (pg. 200). I also find it helps to foster a warmer, friendlier learning environment for students.

Make feedback appear personal. This may pull the curtain back a little on the “magic” that happens in some of my classes, but I use “replacement strings” a lot in our learning management system. If you’re familiar with Mail Merging, the process is similar. If I type something like {FirstName} in feedback within a gradebook item in our LMS, students will see it as their first name. While I offer lots of individual feedback to students, I also find that students will often make mistakes that require similar feedback. In those situations, I can automate feedback by copying and pasting feedback to several students but personalizing the feedback with the replacement string. Bowen suggests that using names like this can “increase the attention the attention given to the rest of your feedback” (p. 200).

Try video messages and feedback. This is a strategy I use a lot in my online classes, but they’re rarely recorded for individual students. Instead, I record brief video messages at the start of the week to provide an overview of the readings and assignments for the whole class. I also record videos at the end of the week to highlight the work students have contributed. In both situations, I’ll identify specific students by their first names and discuss the exemplary work they’ve done or questions they’ve asked. While this strategy helps to make the course feel more personal for students, it also helps to establish a regular teacher presence and communicates to students that I’m engaging with the course discussions.


Bowen, J. A. (2021). Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection. JHU Press.


One thought on “Promoting Personalization

  1. Pingback: Top Posts from 2022 – Part 1 | The 8 Blog

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