what is personalized learning
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What Is Personalized Learning? A Complete Guide to Individualized Education in the Classroom

  • Phoebe Powell
  • |
  • November 26, 2019

Personalized learning is a path in education that takes into account the specific strengths, interests and needs of each student and creates a unique learning experience based on those individual traits.

Students and educators work together to create customized learning plans for the classroom. By leveraging technology, it’s possible to create a personalized learning experience to suit the learning style of each student, while keeping students motivated and engaged without leaving teachers overworked or overwhelmed. 

What Is Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning takes a different approach from the typical one-size-fits-all classroom model that teaches a standard curriculum to all students, with little differentiation. Instead, it tailors personal learning plans to the individual knowledge, skills, interests and learning styles of each student. 

An important element of these individual plans is that they’re developed through a collaborative approach between students and educators. That way, students are empowered to take ownership over their own classroom experience and get involved in planning for the future. 

The US Department of Education defines personalized learning as: 

“instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.”

There are a few key characteristics of personalized learning:

  • Lesson plans, including the goals, teaching style and content, are geared toward the specific needs of the student
  • Lessons are developed based on the interests of the student
  • The pace of teaching is adjusted to suit the individual student: lessons move at the pace of the student’s learning
  • Students have a say over what they learn and how they learn it
  • Technology is often used to achieve the goals of personalized learning

Personalized learning involves developing customized lesson plans that reflect the interests and needs of each student, and it uses technology to help guide individual learning. 

What Is the Purpose of Personalized Learning?

The purpose of personalized learning is to help every student reach their potential by optimizing their learning experience to suit their particular needs. Its ultimate aim is to ensure every student succeeds academically. And it achieves that goal by creating unique lesson plans to challenge and inspire each individual student. 

Traditionally, schools have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom learning. It makes sense, given the ratios we see in class: one teacher is responsible for educating as many as 30 kids at a time. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks class sizes around the world, in 2017, the average class size in the U.S. hit 23 students. 

When one teacher is responsible for the education of so many, it’s common for them to “teach to the middle,” meaning they gear their lessons toward the average student in the class. This can leave slower learners behind, leading to frustration. And  faster learners may become bored and eventually disengaged. 

But technology has finally provided an opportunity to break through the constraints of having just one teacher overseeing so many students. The purpose of personalized learning is to provide the motivation needed for students to take charge of their own learning. 

This involves setting their own objectives in partnership with educators and working on projects that reflect their interests and learning style. There are also ongoing one-on-one meetings between a student and the teacher, where they can track progress, address any issues and set new learning goals. By building the classroom experience around the needs of each student, personalized learning is meant to better engage students, leading to greater academic achievement overall.  

What Is Personalized Learning in the Classroom?

So, what does personalized learning look like in action? Because this approach to learning is so individualized, the daily classroom routine in a school using personalized learning looks a bit different from a more traditional classroom.

One of the first things you may notice about a classroom that has adopted a personalized learning approach is that educators spend much less time at the front of the classroom delivering lectures to students. Instead, students are given the freedom to explore their own individual lesson plans and learn in a way that is most suited to them.

That doesn’t mean classes are filled with students who are learning on their own in silence; personalized learning is actually meant to be highly collaborative. Students with similar interests or learning styles often work together on group projects, which helps teach them valuable communication, cooperation and leadership skills.  

Educators are there to provide guidance and track the progress of students. The time they’d normally have spent lecturing to the class is freed up, allowing them to focus on supporting the individual progress of each student.

What Are the Benefits of Personalized Learning?

A personalized learning approach in the classroom benefits both students and educators alike, providing tailored learning experiences for students to pursue their interests at their own pace, and allowing teachers to focus on guidance, support and longer-term planning. Here are some of the top benefits of adopting personalized learning in the classroom:

1. It Allows Students to Master School Subjects

When students are allowed to work at their own pace and in a way that is best suited to their style of learning, they become empowered to master each subject on the curriculum. In a traditional classroom, educators need to teach lessons at a specific pace, which can leave some students behind and can leave faster learners disinterested. With personalized learning, each student works through lessons at a pace that allows them to properly absorb the material and ultimately master the subject. 

2. It Gives Students Agency

Personalized learning empowers students to take control over their education and plan for their own futures, which helps keep them more engaged in the classroom. It encourages students to find and explore their passions at school, and to discover different ways of learning. Not only can students learn from educators and through self-guided learning, they’re encouraged to work closely with their peers to share skills, knowledge and common interests. By keeping students engaged in how and what they learn in the classroom, personalized learning offers them the freedom to direct their own education.

3. It Helps Cultivate Soft Skills

Personalized learning teaches crucial skills beyond traditional subjects like math, English and history. It also focuses on developing and practicing soft skills like empathy, creativity, communication and collaboration. These skills are important as students prepare for an uncertain future. While we don’t know how technology will shape the job market in the coming decades, a recent study by McKinsey Global Institute predicted that up to 30 percent of the hours worked globally will be automated by 2030. And it’s soft skills that will still be in demand in a world of increased automation. By arming students with transferable skills, personalized learning prepares them for an unpredictable future job market. 

4. It Leads to Improved Student Feedback

Personalized learning often makes use of technology to improve classroom learning. Tech also allows educators to give feedback to students more often and more immediately, by using personal assessments and tailored quizzes for each student. Students, parents and educators can get a better understanding of how well a student is learning new lessons and address any knowledge gaps in real time. 

5. It Encourages More—and Better—Collaboration

Collaboration is built into personalized learning. Students and educators work together to set learning plans and goals that meet the needs of the student and the requirements of the academic curriculum. And students are encouraged to work closely with their peers to share information with one another and learn together, through group projects and informal knowledge sharing. 

6. It Allows Educators to Make Better Use of Their Time

By leveraging technology, personalized learning can help educators save time on administrative tasks so they can focus on supporting students in their individual learning and troubleshooting when issues arise. Online learning programs can help cut down on educators’ marking time. Personalized learning also involves less classroom lecturing, so teachers can instead focus on working one-on-one with students. Often, classroom technology also allows parents to get insights into how their kids are doing in school, from reading about upcoming assignments to viewing recent grades. That way, parents can keep up to date, with no added burden on educators.  

7. It Leads to Improved Academic Performance

Probably the biggest benefit of implementing personalized learning in the classroom is that it boosts academic success rates. Personalized learning builds stronger relationships between students and educators, it allows students to learn at their own pace and it encourages students to pursue their interests. As a result, classroom performance often noticeably improves when schools switch from traditional to personalized learning. According to a recent study by Rand Corporation, when schools switched to personalized learning programs, students who began significantly below national norms for standardized test scores performed above national norms within two years. 

Phoebe Powell
ABOUT PHOEBE

Phoebe Powell is a freelance copywriter and content strategist who writes for tech companies, startups and non-profit organizations. When not at her desk, you can find Phoebe cycling the streets of Toronto, checking out local breweries or exploring Ontario’s parks with her dog Pippy.