What is Personalized Learning?
In a one-size-fits-all education system that encourages conformity to the desired “norm,” the theory of personalized learning is gaining attention in schools and communities across the nation. Understanding and appreciating students as unique individuals with unique needs and diverse learning styles, the personalized learning approach offers students a different methodology to meet their needs and enhance their education.
Tailored to individual learning preferences and seeking to meet the specific interests of a variety of learners, personalized learning plans seek to help encourage lifelong learning and increase student engagement in order to close achievement gaps and ensure college and career-readiness.
Personalized Learning is not a hands-off free-for-all. It requires identifying an end goal and working to meet that goal by backwards planning and the implementation of targeted, data-driven, high-interest instruction. Educational goals and the plan to meet them is highly personalized and flexible. Students create academic goals with the guidance of educators and regularly reflect on their goals, taking ownership of their educational plans.
The ultimate goal of education, whether pursued through a personalized learning approach or otherwise, is college- and career-readiness. Personalized learning engages more students by identifying their current level of understanding and helping them design an educational plan that will assist them in meeting and exceeding their educational goals. Students who are exposed to personalized learning opportunities generally show higher levels of achievement because they receive greater levels of targeted instruction and appropriate support. Increased engagement and achievement results in students reaching their full potential.
Personalized Learning in the General Classroom
One-on-one instruction is ideal, but not always practical. Personalized learning means meeting the students at their current level, discovering their passions and pitfalls, and working collaboratively with each student to personalize his or her educational plan. That may mean more individualized curriculum, different activities or assignments from other students in the class, or the incorporation of alternative teaching strategies. The goal of personalized learning is to tap into a student’s passion and potential and help them achieve their best, creating lifelong learners with a passion and push to learn more.
Learning that is more student-centered and engaging yields better results in the classroom. By implementing personalized learning plans, teachers have the opportunity to work more one-on-one with individual students while a small group or independent work is taking place within the classroom. Students also learn collaboration skills and work with others who share a common interest or passion for a subject.
No one knows a student’s individual learning style better than the student him- or herself. Oftentimes, these students’ voices are drowned out by adults who claim to know better how to teach them and expect them to perform using “tried and true” approaches. Personalized learning encourages students to advocate for themselves, to work with educators to understand their learning styles and allow for personal choice and individualized pace.
When students feel ownership of their education, when they feel they have a say and can guide their own path to learning, they take more pride in learning and exert more effort to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. Educators take on the role of learning facilitator, guiding, motivating, and encouraging students to set their own personal goals and to pursue those goals through their own individual interests and passions. Teachers continue to teach but can do so knowing each students’ areas of interest and their learning styles. They have the opportunity to customize their lesson plans and teaching strategies based on each students’ needs.
The Role of Technology in Personalized Learning
There is a misconception that personalized learning takes place in isolation, that students who are offered personalized learning are somehow removed from the classroom and secluded from their peers. Technology is a valuable tool in ensuring this is not the case.
Technology is a powerful tool for personalized learning in the classroom. The right technology allows educators to ensure that content standards are being met and can help schools align their curriculum goals with the personalized learning goals of the students in their classrooms. Digital tools, including online practice tests, can be used to support student learning and teacher assessment of that learning. Online resources, tutorial videos, curriculum, and activities allow teachers to help students personalize their education based on their current level and their goals for learning. And students in today’s world have grown up with technology, so they are generally more comfortable and confident in navigating the internet than picking up a pencil to take notes from an antiquated print source.
Computer-adaptive assessments with built-in links to support materials or extra practice allow teachers to “customize” work for their students. Students who struggle with a concept as it is being assessed have the opportunity to practice the skill or watch a tutorial video to learn more about the subject. Teachers can also use this data to plan targeted instruction for those students within the classroom, explaining the concept and supporting the student in one-on-one tutorials or small group instruction led by the teacher. For students who are mastering the content, computer-adaptive assessments increase the complexity of the questions and challenge students to grow.
Technology is a valuable asset for project-based learning and can allow for the collaboration and interaction of students with people around the world. If anything, technology’s role in personalized learning increases student engagement and interest and offers opportunities for students to gain a broader perspective of today’s issues. Students can share their work digitally with people around the world, posting it for view on a variety of media platforms. They can engage in conversations with people anywhere and gain insight and perspective from other cultures. It is a valuable tool for bringing the world into the classroom.
8 Tips For Successful Implementation of Personalized Learning
Look at our special Personalized Learning Infographic by USATestprep
Teachers are creative, innovative thinkers driven by a desire to see students succeed and to teach them the skills they are going to need to be successful in life. They work hard to create lesson plans that teach the skills and standards students will be assessed on in mandated testing, while maintaining a safe classroom environment where students feel they can take risks and share their ideas. A problem with the current approach to education, however, is that teachers are overburdened by administrative restrictions, in terms of mindset and expectations, that make the implementation of these ideas difficult, if not impossible. The educational system encourages educators to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach to delivering curriculum that leaves many students with limited access to the knowledge.
Once teachers, administrators, and district officials understand what personalized learning really is and the benefits it can provide to the students they serve, getting their buy-in is easy. With an understanding of how personalized learning (PL) can enhance student learning and make the job of teaching more satisfying and rewarding, with increased student engagement and success, teachers will be ready to implement it immediately. Knowing they have support from an administration and district that understand the value of a personalized approach, the fear and concern teachers have about being “caught” going “off-script” will disappear, because that script will be unique to each student and diversity will be celebrated and supported in all classrooms.
For personalized learning to be truly successful, “traditional” mindsets about education must shift for not only teachers and administrators, but for the parental community as well. Parents remember their own educational journeys, and when that path looks different for their children they may be concerned. However, with clear communication about what PL is and the support it can provide all students in their individual learning, parents may shift their understanding of what is happening in the classroom. Professional development in PL programs and implementation for school staff, and community outreach programs to educate parents about this approach to student learning, will help all stakeholders better understand and appreciate the benefits of PL.
“[P]ersonalization can improve a school’s ability to connect with students, enhance their academic focus, and assist students in planning for the future.”
But before that can happen, all stakeholders must understand what PL is and be open to accepting its value for student learning and success.
One of the most important pieces to ensuring the successful implementation of a personalized learning program is to have the right tools. In today’s digital age, the number of resources available to educators is overwhelming. It takes time and training to understand what to look for in PL resources, from student-management systems to assessment materials to curriculum. The goal of PL is personalization, and finding the best technology and tools to be able to personalize learning for each student is key. Not all students will benefit from using the same tools. Consideration of the interface for both students and teachers, access to student information, parental access, and assessment tools are just some of the aspects that should be addressed when looking at PL technology.
Tools are only as effective as the people who are using them. This means that teachers need to be trained on identifying and selecting which PL resources to use when evaluating things like curriculum, activities, assessments, and student-monitoring systems. They must also understand how to implement and use them effectively in the classroom. Technology training, in addition to professional development opportunities to understand how to evaluate the efficacy and propriety of resources and how to use student-management systems, is critical. The opportunity for teachers to explore online options available for classroom use and the time to discuss their findings with their colleagues are key aspects to successful implementation of a PL program.
Using technology to personalize learning for all students also means that districts must have the money and the manpower to support the hardware, software, and training required to implement PL programs. They must be forward-thinking and anticipate the long-term needs of students and teachers in terms of materials, ongoing training, and professional development. Some PL programs and systems may require money to purchase licenses. Devices will be lost or damaged. For PL to be successful, there must be enough devices available to all students and teachers. In addition, a strong enough support system and infrastructure must be put in place to be able to support the technology at each school site.
Students learn differently. Some will thrive when they have the opportunity to work with others, while some prefer to work independently. Some enjoy using computers and technology to create presentations or explore concepts, while others may prefer to read from books or to build projects in a more hands-on approach. Some students become engaged learners if a lesson includes a competitive game where “winning” becomes an incentive, while others cower at competition and will completely disengage to avoid that sense of rivalry.
Personalized learning allows students to select the learning method that is best for them and to determine what makes learning fun and keeps them engaged. As they become more comfortable in their learning environment, students may even become brave enough to try something new and challenge themselves by tackling a different type of project or by completing work in a different way. Those who work with a partner or small group may try completing a project independently once they have confidence in their own skills. Students who generally prefer to work alone may branch out and work in a collaborative group on a task. The attempts at something new or different come when students feel comfortable in their learning environment and have confidence in their skills as a learner. These feelings are developed when students have a choice about how they complete tasks and the types of tasks they are asked to do. Choice allows for students to select the learning method that is best for them – and they may try something new or challenge themselves by doing a different type of project, but the idea is that they have this choice available to them and the support of their teacher to guide them into this new territory if they choose to take on this challenge.
Personalized learning will look different for different students, though the goal of college and career readiness for all remains the same. Creating a culture of choice and helping to guide students through that process of decision-making becomes an important role for the instructor-facilitator. Allowing students to make their own choices regarding their learning and next steps is an empowering step to creating self-directed learners who have increased buy-in with regard to the value of education and who begin to develop longer-term plans for themselves. Personal choice makes learning more fun and more engaging.
Student skills and abilities vary widely, but so do their interests and passions. PL allows students a choice in how they learn and that makes them more invested in the process. In Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, teacher and author Mike Anderson notes that when students have choice in what and how they learn, this “choice can help combat apathy.” This culture of choice within a classroom benefits students and that benefit extends beyond the classroom.
Teachers learn very early on in their training about Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development,” or ZPD. The idea behind ZPD is that students know what they know, but when they are learning something new, the material must be presented in a way that is challenging but achievable. This means that it must be within a student’s ZPD, and if it is too far beyond, the student won’t be able to understand it and the challenge will overwhelm and frustrate the student, leading to disengagement. Conversely, if the material presented is below a student’s ZPD, they may become bored, believing the information is too easy and without any sense of challenge, and disengage from the learning opportunity. When teachers present students material within their ZPD, however, there is a sense of achievable challenge as they try to master the information, and it is presented in a way that is attainable but pushes the student to greater understanding of more difficult or complex content. Knowing a student’s ZPD can help students and teachers work together to set appropriate goals for student learning that challenge the student, but not to the point of frustration and exasperation.
One of the most beneficial aspects of personalized learning is the sense of control that students gain with regard to their learning. To help keep students in the driver’s seat, it is important to allow them to participate in the process of creating their own educational goals, both long-term and short-term, while keeping in mind their ZPDs and their interests. Teachers should work to help guide the students in their goal creation, but PL has no room for adult dictation of all aspects of learning for the student. Yes, standards must be met and meaningful content delivered, but what that looks like and how it is accomplished is what PL is all about. The goal of each student may be slightly different, but tailoring those goals to them is what will help keep them engaged and on the road to learning.
It is not enough to set the goal and walk away. To use a metaphor of driving a car, if the goal is the ultimate destination on this road trip, with stops to explore and see the sights along the way, you can’t hop into the driver’s seat and take a nap and expect to arrive safely at your destination. Attention must be paid to how we get there. This is the same with learning goals. It’s not enough to set the goal and then just sit back, cross fingers, and hope the student makes it to the goal. It is the teacher’s job to check in with that student, to “keep the driver awake,” to monitor the progress the student is making in achieving his or her goals, and to make adjustments along the way as necessary.
Revisiting goals with the students, monitoring their progress in achieving those goals, and revising those goals as necessary are important components in the success of PL. Start with the end goals in mind and plan backwards from there – if that is where students need to be, how does this particular student get there? By what means? By following what steps? Including the students in these conversations, having them reflect on their goals and determine how those goals may need to be modified or added to as learning progresses, is incredibly empowering for them and allows them to be in the driver’s seat. Making decisions about their learning keeps them engaged.
We can’t know where to go or realize when we get there if we don’t know where we are or where we’re starting from. This is why assessment is an important part of personalized learning.
“Assessment” often gets a bad rap, as it is associated with standardized tests and conformity and a lack of ability to be creative or think outside the box. While there are some mandatory assessments, delivered in “traditional” ways, assessment as it relates to PL takes on important value. To assess just means to evaluate or rate something. In the case of student learning, initial assessments or evaluations are critical to determining where a student is starting from and what his or her ZPD is likely to be, so that appropriate goals can be set and a challenging but achievable curriculum can be developed for this learner. But assessments must be continuous and the data gathered from the assessments reviewed and considered when planning next steps for student learning.
Continued, regular assessments and check-ins must be conducted to ensure that students remain challenged and are growing in their skills and abilities. Using formative assessments along the student’s path of learning helps the teacher determine the next steps and offer support in areas of need. Summative assessments to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit of study don’t need to be standardized multiple-choice tests in a personalized learning program. Assessments might be an exam, or they might be a project, a discussion, a presentation – the possibilities are too numerous to list here. But continued assessment allows student progress to be monitored and tracked so adjustments can be made as necessary. Using technology, teachers can create learner profiles for each of their students where progress can be tracked, using data that is collected and then used to help guide instruction.
Assessment goes beyond the measurement of students, however. The whole PL system must consistently be assessed and upgrades or modifications made based on the needs of students. This includes teacher and school site reflections and conversations about how PL is being used, what benefits are being seen, what best practices are being implemented to ensure the engagement of all students, and so on. As new PL resources become available, they should be assessed to determine whether they would be beneficial in a given classroom or with a particular student. Thus, “assessment” becomes less of a bad word and more of a valuable tool that can provide insight and keep the PL design on the right track.
Personalized learning looks different from traditional learning for most people. Because of this, the implementation of a PL program can be a scary thing for teachers and administrators, as the views and expectations of how students are educated must shift. The transition to PL can be challenging for parents and students, too. Letting go of the more traditional approach to education, adapting the system that “worked” for parents or guardians to something new, and allowing students more freedom of choice isn’t always easy. Thus, flexibility is key.
Flexibility when implementing PL is necessary from all stakeholders. School districts and site administrators must be flexible in scheduling both classes and teacher planning time. Teachers must be flexible in adapting to the time it takes for students to achieve their goals and accommodate those who work “faster” and those who work “slower.” Parents must be flexible in supporting this new style of student learning, which may look very different from the homework and studying that they remember from their childhood. And students must be flexible in trying new things and participating in setting their own personal educational goals.
With personalized learning, things are going to change and be different. The structure of the school day is going to change, the organization of lesson plans and curriculum planning are going to change, time management within the classroom and within the teacher’s work day is going to change, tracking student data is going to change, assessment types are going to change, the role of parents and students in education is going to change – and all that change requires a certain level of understanding and acceptance that being flexible and open to trying new ways of doing things so that meaningful, engaged learning is taking place for all students and will yield great results.
With flexibility comes the acknowledgement that personalized learning programs are most successful when they are supported by all stakeholders. It can’t just be an “at school” approach to learning, but must be reinforced in a child’s community of learning by parents, teachers, and students. In a Hanover Research report published in March of 2014, one key finding was that the most successful and “best personalized learning programs are situated within a strong community of teachers, parents, and students”.
Everyone must be “on board” with PL and work together to support it so that the program and the students involved in it can be successful. This means parent outreach to involve parents in their child’s learning. It means spreading the word of PL to the community so that people understand how it works and the benefits it can bring and can appreciate what is being done in their local schools. This means adequate time and materials available for teachers to make PL a success for every student. This means supporting students when they are developing their learning goals, holding them accountable for their success and their struggles and helping to guide and support them so that they take pride and ownership in their work, feel free to pursue their passions, and are prepared to do so beyond the classroom.
One of the greatest benefits of personalized learning is the long-lasting effect it has on learners to have a say in their learning goals and have their strengths celebrated. Tailoring learning to a student’s style and interests changes that student’s outlook on learning and education in general. For students to feel they have a voice in their learning and can set goals that will determine their future success, builds a sense of confidence and responsibility that lasts a lifetime.
As research into personalized learning continues to expand, early reports point to incredible benefits:
- Increased growth in skill sets including math and reading skills
- Increased test scores
- Increased engagement with materials and learning
- Decreased behavior issues resulting in disciplinary action
And the benefits go beyond the classroom. Allowing students to be productive, successful learners and engaging them in unique learning experiences increases their sense of self-esteem and self-worth, which can carry over to achievement beyond the books. The same Hanover Research study mentioned above also found that the personalized learning approach “...is an effective way to meet the needs of diverse learners,” including at-risk students for whom the traditional educational setting is challenging and often results in feelings of frustration, anxiety, or inability that lead students to drop out. Increasing a student’s sense of ability by tailoring curriculum and instruction to their strengths while supporting them in areas of growth increases their sense of self-worth and their motivation, which makes them more likely to stay in school and achieve academic milestones that will open doors to possibilities in their futures generally shut to those who don’t complete high school.