Personalized Learning Crash Course
Personalized learning is a strategy, mindset, and educational approach to learning that sets each student on a path to realizing themselves as learners and contributors in this fast-paced and ever-changing world. Classroom structures and practices based on the principles of personalized learning meet students where they are and intentionally move them forward by offering choices, building confidence, and providing customized learning opportunities.
In order for us to incorporate personalized learning into our schools effectively, we must be able to observe, categorize, and measure how educators and students are personalizing learning and, ultimately, what’s working and what’s not.
iNACOL, a nonprofit organization that aims to drive the transformation of education systems and accelerate the advancement of breakthrough policies and practices, believes that personalized learning is:
"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."
This definition captures the essence of what personalized learning encompasses and inspires a shift from the one-size-fits-all approach to true student-focused learning. It also encourages us to create learning environments that provide spaces, resources, and opportunities for students to embrace their strengths, identify their needs, and make informed decisions about their futures.
Personalized Learning vs. Differentiated Learning vs. Individualized Learning
There is no shortage of instructional approaches and pedagogies for educators to apply in the classroom. In fact, with such an abundance of different ways to impact the learning experience—especially in the age of digital learning—it’s easy to get confused.
People often use the terms differentiated learning, individualized learning, and personalized learning synonymously, when in reality they have a number of differences. At a high level:
- Differentiated learning is a step in the direction away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching and considers the content, process, product, and learning environment. This approach takes the needs of students into account—whether that's looking at what content is best suited for their learning needs, how they best process information, or what product will be the best demonstration of their understanding.
- Individualized learning 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 from ISTE, “If differentiation is the how then individualization is the when.”
- 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.
For more information, check out our blog post where we discuss these instructional approaches more in-depth.
How to Think About Personalized Learning
While iNACOL’s definition of personalized learning is thorough and emphasizes the proper elements, consider reframing your mind to think of personalizing learning as a verb. Teachers are personalizing learning for students. Teachers are helping students personalize their own learning. By repositioning the word as a verb, it allows us to focus on what really matters. Not the standardized definition (because there really isn’t one), but instead, how it looks in action, what makes it effective, and how we go about measuring it.
With this is mind, in order for teachers and students to personalize learning, the learning must be:
- Flexible—Students have the ability to learn on their own terms, anytime, anywhere. It’s about the “how, when, and where they learn.”
- Empowering—Students have the freedom to make choices and be active in the learning process (and by extension, to have an impact on others’ learning interactions).
- Tailored—Students’ personal needs are matched with specific content and instruction, by considering “each student's strengths, needs, and interests” to customize learning opportunities.
- Mastery-based—Students are evaluated on proficiency in key subject areas (against defined standards) as a better way to understand where students are excelling, making progress, or struggling.
Personalized Learning Examples & Best Practices
Here are iNACOL's elements of personalized learning, framed within the four principles described above:
Keep it Flexible
Flexible pacing—One way to incorporate flexible pacing into your classroom is by providing various ways for students to access and process information in the place that makes sense for them. That might be a video that can be rewatched or paused, a set of online activities that allow students to move as quickly or slowly as needed, or reading selections that the student can process at his/her own speed.
Anywhere, anytime learning—Technology allows students to access, practice, and produce anywhere, anytime, and on their own terms. This type of blended learning works best within your learning management system (LMS), which can be used to assign, assess, and collaborate in and out of school, no matter the types of devices your students are using.
Empowering Students with Choice and Voice
Student agency—Centers, flipped learning, and playlists all promote and support student autonomy. Structures that offer students choice and exercising their voice build student agency. With regard to student agency, students choose which and as many resources as they need to gain knowledge and understanding. In some cases they suggest or provide their own plan for understanding concepts.
Deeper learning and problem solving—Project-based learning and group work challenge students to understand the task, identify and assign roles, and to maintain momentum as they produce evidence of authentic learning.
Performance-based assessments—Performance-based assessments go beyond traditional methods of assessing students as they involve students demonstrating knowledge, understanding, and proficiency in an authentic way—and in a way that encourages students to choose how they will accomplish a task. According to Jay McTighe, a unique characteristic is that “performance tasks are open-ended. Thus, there can be different responses to the task that still meet success criteria. These tasks are also open in terms of process; i.e., there is typically not a single way of accomplishing the task.” Since feedback is a key component in personalizing learning, it’s crucial to help them understand how and why they earned the score they received. This way, they are empowered with an understanding of what they need to focus on.
Differentiated instruction—To effectively differentiate instruction, we must consider the content, process, product, and learning environment. How we present the content to our students, how they interact with the content, and how they produce evidence of their learning is wide open.
Individual student profiles—Individual student profiles are tools for customizing learning. Student profiles capture information about the performance history and personal interests of each student. That information can be used to develop and plan personal learning pathways that include the support and services each student needs to master content at their own pace.
On-demand and immediate instructional interventions and support for each student— Assessing and addressing student progress as learning is happening helps inform the appropriate next step(s) for each student.
Frequent feedback from both instructors and peers—Feedback comes in many forms and helps students stay on track. Classroom practices like providing structures that build in peer feedback—like student commenting or peer rubrics—or one-on-one conferences keep students informed of their progress so they have a better idea of where they need to go next in the learning process.
Standards-based knowledge and skills—Standards-based instruction and grading help take the guesswork out of the what the curriculum will cover and how student progress will be measured. Providing the standards for a lesson or unit ahead of time—and in student-friendly language—helps the students understand what they are learning and how to begin engaging with the content.
Personalized Learning & Technology
While most educators could personalize aspects of learning in the classroom, it becomes far easier to do so with the use of technology.
Consider the role of the traditional LMS in the learning process. At a high level, it is a place where students work on assignments, collaborate, take quizzes and tests, and so on.
On the other hand, modern learning management systems, like Schoology, are built to equip educators with the resources needed to make the learning experience engaging and personal. Just think about the role of the modern LMS with regard to the personalized learning concepts discussed in the preceding section—flexibility, tailored, empowering students with voice and choice, and mastery-based.
Personalizing learning can seem like a daunting task, but technology can help scale the approach for greater impact. We’ll be discussing this topic quite a lot more on the blog in the near future.
Enabling Your Staff to Personalize Learning
Personalized learning is a major shift in how to think about teaching and learning. But like any other major pedagogical shift, it requires time and a thoughtful approach through effective professional learning opportunities.
Make sure that professional learning opportunities are mirroring and modeling the approaches of personalizing learning. Staff who are expected to shift their practice with students should have flexible pacing, they should be empowered to have some voice and choice in how they learn, they should have tailored content, and the learning should be tied to teacher effectiveness standards.
As personalized learning continues to become more of a focus at schools and districts, administrators are allocating additional resources to make sure staff is successful. In recent years we’ve seen a rise in the number of job titles such as Personalized Learning Coordinator in districts across the country. We’ve also seen more emphasis on professional learning and change management on the topic.
We recently spoke with Amy Cordes, Achievement Specialist for Personalized Learning at Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland on this topic. She detailed the multi-year blended learning and personalized learning journey her district has been on to empower teachers to make a bigger impact in the classroom.
Soon we’ll be sharing a Q&A with Amy on this topic on our blog.
Personalizing YOUR Personalized Learning Strategy
There are so many different ways to engage students and help them succeed, and personalization is an obvious next step for many districts in their educational journey. At the end of the day, how you or the teachers at your district approach personalized learning will be unique. The exciting thing about personalized learning is that there are so many different ways to achieve your vision of it. While that may seem daunting, we believe this is a challenge worth pursuing—the benefits to student performance could be enormous.
As you continue to explore the various aspects, qualities, and desired outcomes of personalizing learning for our students, don’t forget to include them as you observe, categorize, and measure effectiveness. After all, they are the biggest stakeholders in their own education.
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