Differentiated, Individualized, and Personalized Learning Explained
Classrooms are a whirlwind of learning styles, needs, interests, backgrounds, and abilities. Students need to not only be met where they are but also have a say in where they’re going. Fortunately, educators have access to a plethora of instructional approaches that, if implemented effectively, will provide students with the high level of engaged learning they require to be successful.
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But unfortunately, over the years, the purpose and distinguishing characteristics of some of these instructional approaches has become unclear. Let’s detangle some of the loose edges surrounding differentiated, individualized, and personalized learning—three instructional approaches that are constantly confused.
By understanding the difference, and ultimately how these separate strategies can fit together, you will be better equipped to initiate more engaging and effective learning, and ultimately shift to a student-centered approach.
*One note of caution before we dive in—while this article is about distinctions, try not to get too caught up in the definitions and technical differences. Each of these strategies, if done well, can result in effective, student-centered learning experiences. It's better for your own practice to not adhere too strictly to one strategy when elements of another are warranted. See my final section entitled "Seeing Beyond the Differences" for more on this.
What is Differentiated Learning?
Differentiated learning is instruction tailored to the learning needs and preferences of different students. It’s a step in the direction away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching. The method varies according to the needs of each student or what research and real-time observation shows works best for similar students in groups, but learning goals remain the same for everyone.
In their book Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau explain that differentiation is "the modification of four curriculum-related elements—content, process, product, and affect—which are based on three categories of student need and variance—readiness, interest, and learning profile."
- Content—what knowledge and skills do students need to learn
- Process—how students learn or understand the content
- Product—how students demonstrate their understanding
- Affect—how students' disposition impacts learning
- Readiness—how currently equipped a student is for learning specified content (Tomlinson and Imbeau explicitly distinguish "readiness" from "ability", saying that "readiness" is temporary, not ingrained.)
- Interest—topics, activities, etc. that engage and motivate a student
- Learning Profile—a student's preference for what is learned, how it's learned, and how it's expressed
In an example differentiated classroom, students are organized in small groups, one which includes students who need more direct instruction. This group completes assignments using the technology and resources the teacher selects to best match their abilities. The teacher encourages the group to collaborate with each other since they’re working towards a common objective.
Throughout the process, the teacher assesses the students for learning, which shows him what students already know and can do so he can design the appropriate next steps. This ongoing, interactive process involves the teacher:
- Ensuring that instruction is aligned with the desired outcomes, and redesigning if necessary.
- Identifying learning needs of students or small groups.
- Selecting and adapting materials, resources, and technological tools.
- Creating and implementing differentiated instructional strategies.
- Developing individual learning opportunities to help students excel in their learning.
- Providing immediate and implementable feedback and direction.
In another differentiated classroom down the hall, the teacher uses formative assessment data to group her students, as well. One group of students demonstrated advanced comprehension of the current unit, so she assigns them all an extension activity to complete individually while she works with other groups of students in the classroom. Although everyone in the group is expected to have the same product, students are allowed to select content based on their reading level.
In both differentiated classrooms, the students rely on the teacher to define, guide, and support their learning. Students can actually be passive participants in their learning in the differentiated classroom because so much depends on the teacher.
Student are grouped by learning profile, readiness, or another commonality that allows the teacher to decide what students need to know, how they will learn it, and how they’ll demonstrate or prove what they’ve learned. Students participate in their learning by receiving direct instruction from the teacher in a small group in which everyone has the same objective. The teacher selects the resources and tools based on the lesson, with some opportunity for student choice. The teacher continually assesses students and groups for learning.
What is Individualized Learning?
Similar to differentiation, individualized learning is instruction based on the learning needs of students. Individualization, however, places more focus on student pacing. As Dale Basye, co-author of Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Success, put it in an article for ISTE, “If differentiation is the how then individualization is the when.”
But while technically differentiation and individualization are distinct, they can be part of the same strategy. An individualized classroom can differentiate based on individual needs or based on small groups of learners. But whether the learning is differentiated or not, individualized learning allows students to move through the course at their own pace.
In one classroom, for example, a teacher has several students who need one-on-one support. The teacher customizes lessons and tasks for those students, then provides direct, explicit instruction to them based on their identified needs. Her other students move at their own pace through the standard material and with the ability to get help as they need it.
Like differentiated learning, the learning objectives remain the same for all students, with specific objectives for students who get one-on-one support. At the end of a unit, the students complete a summative assessment from which the teacher determines what the students have or have not learned yet.
In another individualized classroom, the teacher employs mastery-based learning, also known as competency-based or proficiency-based learning. Students are not bound to traditional grading scales, as the main goal is to master the content or skill at their own pace. The teacher still controls what students learn, how they receive instruction, and what they produce to demonstrate mastery.
In both classrooms, teachers perform an assessment of learning, which is designed to confirm what students know, demonstrate whether or not they’ve met the necessary curricular objectives, or to certify mastery and determine the student’s next steps.
The teacher determines the readiness of her students, in a similar way as with differentiated instruction. Students then participate in their learning by receiving direct instruction and guidance from the teacher as they progress through digital learning modules at their own pace. The teacher selects the resources and tools based on the needs of the student with very little opportunity for student choice. The teacher relies on assessments of learning to ensure the intended learning is taking place.
What is Personalized Learning?
Of the three strategies discussed in this article, personalized learning provides the most student autonomy. Students have an active role in designing lessons and projects that are meaningful and relevant to them based on their interests, aspirations, and passions. Teachers, then, act more as guides than the curators of information and learning experiences.
But what exactly does that look like? That depends, because personalized learning has different meanings for different practitioners. There are also different degrees or stages of personalization that, while they fall in separate places on a broad spectrum of student-driven to teacher-driven learning, are often lumped under the same umbrella.
In fact, there are so many different definitions of this strategy that iNACOL compiled responses from thousands of educators to inform the creation of a more standard definition. According to their research, personalized learning is defined as "Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and support to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible."
iNACOL also identified 10 essential components of personalization. They are:
- Student agency
- Differentiated instruction
- On-demand and immediate instructional interventions and support for each student
- Flexible pacing
- Individual student profiles or learning paths
- Deeper learning and problem solving
- Frequent feedback from both instructors and peers
- Standards-based knowledge and skills
- Anywhere, anytime learning
- Performance-based assessments
In a personalized learning classroom, students and teachers co-design their objectives and learning based on their learning goals—which means each student drives and owns their unique learning journey. Student critical thinking is encouraged and they are tasked with choosing and using the appropriate resources and technological tools necessary for their learning.
Like the second individualized learning scenario discussed above, the teacher in this example employs the mastery-based learning model. As students progress toward their goals, they monitor their own progress and learn to articulate and defend the quality and nature of their learning. The teacher’s role in promoting the development of independent learners through assessment is to:
- Model and explicitly teach self-assessment skills.
- Guide students in setting goals and monitoring progress.
- Provide examples of quality work that reflects desired curricular outcomes.
- Guide students in developing internal feedback and self-monitoring strategies to validate and question their own thinking.
- Provide regular and challenging opportunities to practice, so that students gain confidence.
- Create a safe environment for students to take chances and receive support.
Student’s needs are determined by the students and connected to their interests, passions, and aspirations. Students are taught to understand how they learn best so that they can tell their teachers how they would like to acquire information, express what they know, and engage with the content. Students participate in their learning by co-designing their learning objectives and the path they’ll take to get there. The teacher is positioned as the helpful guide on the side. Students select their own appropriate resources and tools, and build a network of peers, teachers, and experts to support and guide their learning. Students demonstrate mastery and continually self-assess their learning.
Seeing Beyond the Differences
Now that you understand the clear distinctions between each of these strategies, I want to challenge you to ignore the lines between them. While it's important to recognize what you're practicing, where the ideas come from, and what the research says about their effectiveness, these strategies all have elements that can help create powerful, student-centered learning experiences, whether you use them individually or combine them together.
We can debate how to classify a teacher's strategy all we want, but when you boil it down, learning is an action, not a noun (yes, "learning" can also be used as a noun, which is even done in this article, but hear me out). It can hurt more than help to get caught up in technicalities, because it can make your mindset rigid when it needs to be flexible.
Bruce Lee famously talked about how to be like water and take the shape of whatever vessel is necessary to achieve one's goal, because rigid adherence to one methodology could always be shown inadequate. Similarly, not employing an instructional tactic because it doesn't fit neatly into a predetermined strategy is a missed opportunity, mostly for the students.
So whether you're differentiating learning, individualizing learning, personalizing learning, or combining elements of all three, remember that it's not about conforming to the strategy as much as it's about conforming the strategy to your students' needs.