What Is Personalized Learning in Education?

Personalized Learning Hero

In a typical classroom, you’re likely to find wide variations in student engagement: a few “fast finishers” who quickly master the material, several who are struggling to keep up, and a handful in the “Goldilocks” zone who are exactly where they need to be. Some are bored, some are frustrated, and some may be sailing along but aren’t fully invested in the experience. Personalized learning can help you reach them all.

What Is Personalized Learning?

It's all about delivering a better learning journey for each student. Teachers can adapt their instructional style and materials to ensure all students learn in the way that works best for them.

If you’re teaching about cephalopods in science class, for instance, you can assign a library book to students who prefer to absorb material through independent reading, encourage visual and auditory learners to watch a video (such as My Octopus Teacher on Netflix) or listen to a recording, and engage tactile learners by providing colorful clay and having them construct a model of an octopus. (Of course, these activities can be made available to all, as many students will enjoy exploring a variety of learning methods.)

Imagine that you’re teaching students how to write a persuasive essay about whether soda machines should be allowed in school. You could share a graphic organizer highlighting the structure of a well-constructed essay, model through “thinking out loud” how you might map out your own essay-writing process, and invite student volunteers to engage in a debate while the class observes and takes notes.

While many people equate personalized learning with “individualized learning,” the latter implies that teachers can develop, deliver, and manage 30 unique programs—one for every single student in the classroom. While this might be an ideal vision, it’s hardly sustainable!

But the more that we can customize learning to meet the individual, rather than forcing students through a one-size-fits-all curriculum, the more effective learning will be.

Personalized Learning Definition

Here's how Ken Schofield, a second-grade teacher in Asheville City Schools, North Carolina, defines the approach. “Personalized learning is finding what each child needs to be successful and using that learning opportunity to help the student become more proficient,” he says. “Meeting students where they are gives a teacher an opportunity to help them achieve more.”

Best of all, there isn’t a “right” way to deliver personalized learning; it takes a variety of forms, depending on your teaching style, setting, and students. However, a personalized-learning philosophy generally includes a few basic principles:

Student-Centered: Students are given “voice and choice,” or the ability to shape their own learning pathways, pursuing topics and projects that excite them. Perhaps most important, students have a chance to reflect on their learning.

Ongoing Assessment and Adjustments: By using data, observation, and student feedback, you can continually refine and customize your lessons to meet students’ evolving needs.

Flexible,Targeted Instruction: Teachers deliver content and instruction in a variety of forms. For example, you might use a blend of small-group discussions, multimedia, and written content to teach a lesson. In some cases, you may be able to use adaptive or customizable software that lets students work at their own pace.

Why Personalized Learning?

At its heart, personalized learning gives students ownership over their own learning journey. This builds self-advocacy, self-reliance, confidence, and authentic engagement.

Not only can a personalized learning environment enrich students’ experiences and accelerate academic growth, it can also prepare them for lifelong success. Students feel “heard” and are allowed to pursue interests that resonate with them. Personalized learning can address social emotional needs, empower students to speak up for themselves, and help them achieve a growth mindset.

Personalized learning can also prepare students for college and career. Let’s say one of your students becomes interested in astronomy. If you help encourage that interest with targeted projects, she might become the next Neil DeGrasse Tyson. When students have the opportunity to do meaningful work, you never know what can happen, such as with these potential entrepreneurs in Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee.

Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, personalized learning can also save you time and increase productivity. If you know exactly where a student needs help, you can focus your attention and time to address those specific areas.

Perhaps most important, personalized learning is a positive, inclusive, and optimistic approach to instruction. It benefits us as educators, our students as individuals, and society as a whole. In this personalized learning white paper, by Dr. Anissa Lokey-Vega and Stephanee Stephens, the authors write: “While a traditional learning environment operates on the need to support deficits, a personalized learning environment capitalizes on those individualities as assets, and gives responsibility back to the learner to drive his/her learning on a unique path that serves that learner best.”

Personalized Learning Strategies

Developing an effective personalized learning environment is an iterative and ongoing process. But there are a few strategies that you can incorporate into your classroom right away.

1
Dig Into Project-Based Learning

What’s going on in the community and the world that matters to your students? Creating projects that focus on these issues lets students immerse themselves in a topic of interest over a period of time. For example, students might work on a project to raise awareness for a local community theater. They could conduct interviews with cast and crew, research articles about the theater’s history, and volunteer to build a set. When their exploration is done, students can share the results in a way that is meaningful to them: a TED-style talk over Zoom, an art project, or a presentation embedded on the school website.

2
Weave in “Brain Breaks” and Movement

Some students need to move and fidget and let off steam. By allowing this, we’re honoring their personal needs. Teachers in special education are well-versed in watching for cues that indicate a student needs a break—and the same should hold true for all students. Maida Van Dale, a special education teacher’s assistant in Rhode Island, takes time to observe and assess. “Is a student slouching and appearing to be checked out? Or starting to become agitated? That’s the time to take a break. You can have time to fidget, take a walk, or just stand up and stretch,” she says.

3
Let Students Become Teachers

This technique builds student confidence and mastery over concepts. After all, to effectively teach something, you need to understand it! Try putting a couple of kids who excel in math in charge of the next lesson. Give them guidelines: How will they make sure the lesson hits home with all learners in the classroom? Can they think of an innovative way to demonstrate a key concept? How will they assess their classmates and give them helpful feedback? Give every student a chance to teach something—even if it’s a five-minute lesson on how to play a board game or a demo of how they trained their dog to roll over.

4
Create a “Playlist” or Learning Stations

Consider how you might meet a variety of student needs in your classroom. One way is to offer a choice of activities relating to the topic at hand and allow students to rotate through them. Some activities may involve hands-on materials, some may take place in independent work on student devices, and some may involve group games or role-playing. For example, if you’re teaching about the Lewis & Clark expedition, your activities may include a Reader’s Theater dialogue between the explorers, an online map-making project, and a mileage-calculation activity.

5
Set Up Your Classroom for Student Choice

“We need to get comfortable with sharing the responsibility of personalization with our students,” says Paul Emerich France, National Board Certified teacher and the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning (Corwin, 2019). But we also need to have some structure. He suggests beefing up the classroom library with new book choices, creating a math game library, and preparing sentence starters for daily self-reflection.

Technology in Personalized Education

Advances in education technology have given us valuable tools for personal learning plans. Software programs allow students to pace themselves appropriately—they may take a step backward to revisit a key concept they just didn’t “get” on the first round, or accelerate once they have mastered the preceding lessons. Data can help inform teacher and student of gaps in learning or progress made toward a goal. Jones County Public Schools in North Carolina used technology to help students meet their goals, especially during remote learning.

Teaching and learning aren't always happening at the same time, and personalized learning technology helps us bridge that divide. We can deliver a lesson via video, while students watch and respond from home. Technology also allows students to connect with peers around the globe, further widening their horizons.

When we can access real-time data through technology, we’re better able to pair our students with the right resources at the right time. And in programs such as Waggle, students can customize the interface to reflect their own personalities (with their own avatars) and can access a dashboard that shows their progress toward a goal.

Education technology has helped us to become more facile in delivering targeted one-on-one instruction, but personalized learning shouldn’t be about sitting students in front of computers and leaving them to their own devices.

According to ISTE, “Personalized learning capitalizes on students’ almost instinctual ability to use technology, but it is so much more than technology and algorithms. It is the purposeful design of blended instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and student-to-student collaboration to leverage each student’s interests for deeper learning.”

Personalized learning is really about the process of learning, and ensuring that the process meets every student’s needs. How will we deliver content so that all students have equitable access? What role do students have in directing their own learning outcomes? How will we encourage collaboration, self-reflection, and ongoing curiosity in our students?

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

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Explore how Waggle personalizes practice in math and ELA to help students in Grades K–8 thrive. Request a self-guided demo.

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