Understanding the Benefits of Personalized Learning

6 Min Read
Teacher and student looking at a tablet

Although not a new concept, personalized learning has been a hot topic in education for several years, boosted initially by being named as an approved use for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) funds and then again as a potential way to overcome COVID learning loss. In 2018, a study by KnowledgeWorks found that 39 state’s ESSA plans included some aspect of personalized learning. Six years later a search for “top education trends in 2024” still yields personalized learning near the top of the list.

What Exactly Is Personalized Learning?

As with many education terms, the term personalized learning can take on slightly different definitions. At its core, personalized learning is designed and paced to match students’ learning needs; adjusted to meet their learning preferences; and sensitized to their specific interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Although there are many ways to implement personalized learning, some key components are highlighted below:

  • Learner profiles: A learner profile is a rich and active documentation of each student as a whole person and learner. It is created by the learner with support from the teacher, and it captures the learner’s strengths, challenges, interests, learning preferences, goals, and accomplishments.
  • Voice and choice: Personalized learning gives students options and control over the approach to and pacing of their learning.
  • Flexible, data-informed teaching: In conjunction with learner profiles, frequent, varied assessments allow teachers to flexibly shift instruction based on where a student is in their learning, guided by their strengths and learning needs.

Check out this video by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for an overview of personalized learning.

Why Is Personalized Learning Important?

What led to this push for personalization? As technology and society change at an ever-increasing pace, educators find themselves preparing students for a future we cannot fully envision. While the increased capacity of AI doesn’t mean students no longer need to learn to read, write, and compute, the rise of AI and other automation means students need to develop skills beyond the basics. One set of researchers estimated that more than one in three workers will need to adapt the skills required for their job by 2030, arguing that lifelong learning will become a necessity to pivot as technologies advance. They go on to state, “With the advent of AI, basic cognitive skills, such as reading and basic numeracy, will not suffice for many jobs, while demand for advanced technological skills, such as coding and programming, will rise, by 55% in 2030.” Giving students control over their learning helps them uncover how they learn best and supports the development of self-regulatory skills, both of which aid in life-long learning.

What Are the Benefits of Personalized Learning for Students?

As we well know, the popularity of an educational trend doesn’t always correspond to its efficacy. So, what does research say about benefits of personalized learning? Because of the varying definitions and multiple sub-components, it can be difficult to find research on the broad concept. A 2015 study by the RAND Corporation showed what it called “promising evidence” of the impact of personalized learning. The study compared MAP Growth math and reading scores for approximately 11,000 students from over 60 schools engaged in personalized learning for two school years to a comparison group of students from schools engaged in more traditional learning. The student population in the personalized learning schools showed statistically significant effect sizes in both K–8 reading and math. A subgroup of students from 21 schools who engaged in personalized learning for three years, “showed that the effects of personalized learning accumulate over the years, resulting in larger growth in math and reading achievement.”

Despite the positive results, one of the leading researchers cautioned that due to how varied implementations can be, it might be wiser to examine the effect of the components of personalized learning than to try to study it as a whole. The efficacy of some of the components of personalized learning are highlighted below:

  • Learner Profiles: Metacognition, or the ability to examine one’s own thinking, is critical to learning. Working with students in the development of learner profiles supports them in becoming reflective learners. Teaching students to self-assess their strengths, weaknesses, and preferred ways of learning can help them both self-regulate and self-advocate for what they need to learn.
  • Voice and Choice: A 2015 study examined the impact of giving students choice in things like problem solving strategies, pace and ordering of content, format for demonstrating knowledge, topics and prompts, and whether they worked alone or in a group. The findings, “suggest when meaningful choice is enacted along multiple dimensions . . . and during multiple phases of instruction, students are not only supported to feel psychologically safe in the learning setting but also framed as competent individuals with the skills and authoritative power to make important decisions regarding their classroom experience.” It is important to balance choice and structure as too much choice can be overwhelming and demotivating. The number of options should be tailored to students’ age and the learning goals.
  • Self-Paced Learning: Evidence suggests that when the pace of learning is personalized, it results in student gains, both in math and reading. Numerous educational technology products, like Waggle, allow students to move at their own pace towards mastery. HMH’s solutions include a variety of efficacious digital supplemental products, in fact, where student learning is targeted and personalized.
  • Learning That Is Engaging and Student-Focused: Many schools use project-based learning (PBL) as a vehicle for personalizing learning. In PBL, students learn through deep, open-ended investigations of real-world, complex, and often community-based problems. PBL has been shown to align with ESSA Evidence Levels 1 and 2, indicating moderate to strong evidence of efficacy.

Where to Begin? Some Quick Tips for Implementing Personalized Learning

When getting started with personalized learning, it’s important to remember that there is a wide spectrum of how teachers, schools, and districts approach personalized learning and that starting small is okay. Here are some ways to begin incorporating personalized learning into your classroom:

  1. Start with Learner Profiles: A lot of teachers, myself included, start the year with a “getting to know you” form for students and parents. The form may include questions about the child’s family as well as questions about their interests. If you are like me, you read each document and then put it into a file folder where it sat for the rest of the year. Next year, instead of creating a static document, invest in having students create learner profiles. The insight gained from self-examination supports students in advocating for their instructional needs. This article from Next Gen Learning provides a wealth of information on learner profiles including self-assessments, learner profile templates, and examples of how to use them to personalize your classroom and help students set goals.
  2. Don’t Try to Do It All at Once: You don’t have to remold your entire classroom to start engaging with personalized learning. This blog from NWEA describes starting personalization specifically in math class. When Henry County Schools in Georgia took on the challenge of personalized learning, they allowed schools to approach it in different ways. At one school, students had total choice of what they are working on one day a week. During their “What I Need” or WIN days, students decide what they need to work on and how they want to engage with it, and teachers are there to support them as needed. Trying to completely overhaul your entire approach to teaching will likely only result in frustration for you and your students. Small steps can help you build toward real change. This guide from ISTE describes three stages and six steps you can take to move towards personalized learning.
  3. Use Playlists or Choice Boards: One way to allow students more choice is to create learning playlists or choice boards. These are lists of activities, both digital and non-digital, which support the current learning goals while providing students with flexibility in terms of pacing, order, and mode of learning. In some cases, students can pick a certain number of activities to complete; in others, they must complete all activities but the pacing and sequencing is up to them. Some teachers allow students to skip sections of a playlist based on formative assessment data. Playlist and choice board activities can span a day, a week, or a whole unit. This video from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides more info on getting started with playlists, and this site from the International Literacy Association provides sample playlists and other resources.
  4. Enlist Technology Appropriately: Technology is a fantastic tool in your personalized learning toolbox. It can be used to gather data about students; allow them to choose multiple modes for both learning and demonstrating their understanding; and provide learning opportunities that are tailored to their interests, pacing needs, and where they are in their learning. Check out my colleague Aoife Dempsey’s blog post for more information on how to use technology to support personalized learning.

Pros and Cons of Personalized Learning for Teachers

As you read this, you may be thinking that while all this personalization sounds great for students, it also sounds like a lot of work for teachers! As with taking on any new approach to teaching, there can be a lot of upfront work to getting started with personalized learning, but there is also a lot that is positive. Let’s take a look at a few of the advantages and disadvantages of personalized learning for teachers.

Pros: Advantages of Personalized Learning

Cons: Disadvantages of Personalized Learning

  • Giving students voice can improve achievement and attendance and allowing them choice can increase engagement and motivation.
  • While personalization and differentiation are not the same, allowing students more control of how they learn builds differentiation into the process.
  • Personalized learning is asset-based. It shifts meeting students where they are to a strength rather than deficit-based approach.
  • Getting started with personalized learning takes a lot of upfront work. Teachers need to redesign their curriculum and invest time in introducing and practicing this learning approach with students.
  • When students move at their own pace, supporting and tracking where each student is takes a great deal of effort. As teacher Natalie DiFusco-Funk described, “I was responding to needs. All. The. Time. There was no ‘everyone is taking a test so I can relax day.’”

Ready to Learn More?

Hopefully this blog has whet your appetite for trying personalized learning. If you are ready to take the next step, here are some additional resources to help you get started.

  • A Step-By-Step Guide to Personalize Learning: This 2013 ISTE publication provides a six-step approach to creating a personalized learning environment; details the differences between personalized learning, differentiation, and individualization; and explores the role of technology in personalization.
  • Forum Guide to Personalized Learning Data: The National Forum on Education Statistics published this guide for schools, districts, and states in 2019. In addition to outlining key concepts of and strategies to support personalized learning, it offers case studies from several districts and states.
  • Handbook on Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools: This 2016 guide from the Center on Innovations in Learning provides a comprehensive look at components of personalized learning including, personal competency, centering on students, developing relationships, and the role of both teaching and technology.
  • Personalized Learning: The Why, How, and What: This hour-long webinar explores strategies and examples of personalized learning.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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