What Is a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) in Education?
A personal learning plan, or PLP, is an effective way to empower students to take charge of their own learning and set personal academic goals. A personal learning plan can be defined as a plan that allows students to shape their own educational paths in a collaborative effort with educators, parents, and guidance counselors, among others. PLPs are most often implemented at the middle and high school levels.
PLPs give students the opportunity to construct their own unique learning journeys and to reflect on what they have learned previously. In turn, PLPs enable teachers and other adults in students’ lives to best coach and support them as they strive for their academic and personal goals.
Personal learning plans are also referred to as “individualized learning plans,” “personal educational plans,” or “personalized learning plans.” (Note: The acronym “PLP” can also stand for a “Professional Learning Plan,” intended to guide educators in their own professional development.)
Personal learning plans help students “recognize that they are central in their own learning,” according to Debbie Osofsky, an educator in Devens, Massachusetts (p. 18). “They support the [teacher’s] ability to know the student well so the teacher can effectively advocate for the student and facilitate the student’s ability to advocate for themselves.”
What Is a Personal Learning Plan in Education?
While similar to an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is federally mandated and intended for students with identified learning disabilities, a PLP is intended for every student regardless of academic status. Many states in the U.S. still mandate personal learning plans (or “individualized learning plans”) for all students.
A personal learning plan addresses not only academic goals, but also incorporates students’ personal interests and career goals—particularly at the high school level. Having one in place can help students prepare for a rewarding college experience and career.
Imagine a high-school student who has a particular passion for mechanical engineering. They may have a career goal to build a car, camera, or piece of medical equipment, for instance. How can educators best help this student pursue this interest and work toward their personal and academic goals?
We can ask students to chart their aspirations, set multi-year goals prior to graduation, and identify specific courses they can eventually take in support of their dream of one day becoming a mechanical engineer. We can encourage them to document their work via an online portfolio that captures specific successes and milestones. We can support them in pursuing extracurricular activities such as a community internship, independent research project, or volunteering opportunity that will grow their networks and experiences and enrich their academic background.
Turning broad goals into actionable plans seem to work, too! A brief developed by the U.S. Department of Education summarizes the research suggesting that personal learning plans increase students’ motivation, along with their sense of belonging, both to themselves and to the school. It helps when the plan is ambitious and comprehensive: “These outcomes were particularly pronounced for students who developed plans with challenging academic goals, engaged in career exploration activities, participated in leadership development opportunities, and had high levels of parental involvement in the planning process” (p. 2).
Personal Learning Plans and Personalized Learning
Personalized learning is related to but not the same thing as personal learning plans. Personalized learning is a style of instruction in which teachers can adapt their instructional style and materials to ensure all students learn in the way that works best for them. Personal learning plans fall under the broader umbrella of personalized learning, but are even more customized.
A key element of a PLP is that it is a comprehensive plan, rather than a singular intervention or strategy intended to address a very specific need. A PLP is not a one-off quick fix. It’s a long-term vision that aims to support the student in a process of growth and lifelong learning during school hours, personal hours, and in the future.
We might think of a personal learning plan as a blueprint for a long-term construction project—one that might span several years and go through multiple iterations. Just as no two students are the same, neither are their PLP “blueprints.”
How to Get Started with Personal Learning Plans
By the time students reach the latter years of high school, some of them have a strong, clear sense of what they want to do with their lives. Others may be aware of the subject areas they are particularly drawn to, but have only a vague notion of how to translate that into a vocation. Personal learning plans can inspire them to dig deep and really think about their future.
How and when should students get started? According to a report from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, “the earlier students start to explore their interests and how those interests might align with various postsecondary options, the more time they have to build the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their goals” (p. 1). Even as early as middle school, educators can start asking questions to spark student engagement in building their own PLPs.
- What are your goals for college and career? What do you see yourself doing a few years from now?
- What academic subjects particularly interest you?
- Can you identify your academic strengths and weaknesses? In what areas do you find yourself struggling? What subjects excite you? What subjects don’t currently interest you?
- What are your passions outside of school? These might include sports, travel, arts and crafts, music, literature, and more. How might you integrate those into your educational experience?
As students begin to build a plan, have them document their thoughts. Building a personal learning plan is a process, and it is always subject to change. A student who has decided in middle school to pursue a lifetime career in the performing arts, for example, may decide later in high school that their calling is in social work, politics, or the environment. Nearly every adult can relate to a natural shift in interests over time! Perhaps they want to combine their love for the performing arts with one of these other passions? As young people grow and change, their interests can shift—sometimes frequently and dramatically!
The involvement of family members and other adult mentors is important when constructing a PLP. Parents and caregivers can have ongoing discussions with their children and help them adjust and reconfigure their goals for school and beyond.
Personal Learning Plan Templates
Personal learning plans can be developed in a variety of ways, depending on the district and the resources you may have available. Here are some sample personal learning plan templates and resources from various states that may be helpful:
- Vermont provides a personal learning plan “intake form” to encourage students and parents to reflect and plan. The form notes that “students and parents should view this as record keeping for a much more dynamic, developing and ongoing process.”
- The Nebraska Department of Education describes a personal learning plan as “both a learning process and a planning document for academic, career & technical education, dual credit coursework, workplace learning and activities aligned to career goals.”
- Independent School District 728 (ISD 728), in Minnesota, uses an online system called “My Plan” to help high school students create a PLP. They note that “a personal learning plan is not set in stone. Students can review their plan on a regular basis and update it as their interests and goals grow and change.”
- This template from South Dakota helps students chart their personality traits, experiences, and career interests.
Although the acronyms and the terminology used to describe personal learning plans continue to vary, and the definition of what constitutes a quality PLP may be in flux, evidence suggests that they can be a powerful tool to motivate, empower, and guide students as they move toward college and career readiness.
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