Based on emerging research and practice in school districts across the country, the Alliance for Excellent Education (the Alliance) believes that personalized learning is one of the most effective ways to ensure that all students— particularly traditionally underserved students including students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities and English learners —develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they need to succeed in college, a career, and life.
The following are some frequently asked questions about personalized learning.
- What is personalized learning?
Personalized learning is a student-centered approach designed to help all students develop a set of skills collectively known as the deeper learning competencies. These skills include thinking critically, using knowledge and information to solve complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets.
Under a personalized learning model, teachers, school staff and, as appropriate, other adults in these communities receive the time, tools, and resources to accomplish the following:
- Understand each student’s personal and academic background, strengths, interests, and needs. Help each student achieve an understanding of him/herself along with a commitment to and ownership of his/her own learning. Work in concert with each student to shape his/her academic path and enrich his/her education.
- Provide each student with targeted instruction, practice, and support in areas where they are struggling, while ensuring they learn challenging academic content and skills.
- Create more flexible learning environments and opportunities inside and outside the classroom, including one-on-one, peer-to-peer, small group, and online instruction to help students master academic content and competencies.
- Connect each student to their local community and the world beyond the classroom by engaging them in real-world learning opportunities, such as internships, apprenticeships, hands-on projects, and global study.
- Use tools, technology, and data to enhance classroom instruction, assess individual students’ progress, and jointly identify next steps for meeting their needs.
Visit the Alliance’s Action Academy for additional resources on personalized learning.
- What does personalized learning look like in the classroom?
In a personalized learning classroom, it often can be hard to identify the teacher. While teachers still provide some whole classroom instruction, it is only one of a number of tools available. Teachers and administrators design innovative ways of meeting the needs of their students, mixing direct instruction with small group, one-on-one, and peer-to-peer instruction, as well as incorporating self-paced and online learning, among other flexible learning environments. Consequently, it is common to see students working individually or collaboratively on challenging tasks with the teacher moving fluidly between groups and students.
Students in personalized learning classrooms engage deeply in their work and clearly understand what they are doing, what comes next, and how their work connects to the real world. They have ample support and structure to develop personal responsibility for meeting learning and personal goals. They engage in authentic experiences with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of subject matter and skills through means such as projects, public presentations, performance tasks, and extended writing.
Click here to see personalized learning in action.
- How is personalized learning different from what most students currently do?
Students in a personalized learning environment participate actively in the design and evaluation of their learning and performance, making meaningful choices about their learning experiences. They work more independently and collaboratively on real-world problem solving, practicing and demonstrating critical thinking skills as they apply new knowledge to new situations and in new ways. Most importantly, they regularly self-reflect on their strengths, interests, and future aspirations.
To support this student independence and self-direction, educators expertly design personalized learning experiences and customize academic interventions that provide students with on-going feedback that is timely, frequent, and based on clear and predetermined criteria, such as rubrics. Educators accomplish this by using schoolwide systemic, data-driven processes to identify student needs and monitor progress. They also incorporate assessments that allow students to demonstrate knowledge and skills and use grading systems that reflect learning progressions and students’ personal goals. These efforts, combined with structures that maximize collaborative and peer learning among students and educators, create an instructional environment that focuses on teaching students how to learn, shifting from a teacher-led to student-led approach to learning.
- Is personalized learning only for students who are gifted, especially motivated, or really mature?
Personalized learning is a student-centered approach designed to help all students, regardless of their academic level, age, motivation, or background. By tapping into students’ interests and passions in the classroom and beyond, personalized learning engages students and sparks their love of learning. Through personalized learning, students are better able to see the relevance and purpose of their work and retain more of what they learn.
Personalized learning models have proven effective in schools and districts around the country with significant proportions of traditionally underserved students including students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities and English learners. As the nation seeks to close achievement gaps for traditionally underserved students, this approach becomes even more important. In personalized learning environments, students develop trusting and caring relationships with their teachers as well as a commitment to and ownership of their learning by working with their teachers consistently to remain aware of their academic path.
- What do parents and teachers think about personalized learning?
Based on a national survey conducted by the Alliance, a large majority of parents are open to a new learning approach—even if that approach differs from their own school experience—and, specifically, are very open to a personalized learning approach. Two-thirds of parents agree that giving students more ownership over their learning experience will engage students more deeply in their own education and spark a lifelong love of learning.
Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of teachers say they are comfortable with a different approach to teaching and learning, including personalized learning. Teachers who are shifting to personalized learning report that the biggest and most important challenge is releasing control gradually as learners become more independent and self-directed so that learning is collaborative and students are fully engaged. They also describe this transition as the best work of their careers.
- What does the research say about personalized learning?
Early research on the impact of personalized learning on student achievement is promising. A recent RAND study finds that high-quality personalized learning models have a largely positive impact on students’ math and reading scores after two years:
- Students in personalized learning schools made greater progress in math and reading when compared to peers in traditional learning environments.
- Students who started below grade expectations were performing at or above national averages after two years in a personalized learning school.
- The longer students experienced high-quality personalized learning, the greater their academic growth.
Many teachers and schools experimenting with personalized learning also report early success with boosting student and parent engagement, improving student attendance, increasing teacher retention, and other measures of progress.
Importantly, studies also show that strategies such as formative assessment (formal and informal assessments conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment) and metacognitive (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes) approaches—techniques typically employed in personalized learning classrooms—improve student learning. Additional research shows that close and supportive student-teacher relationships—a hallmark of personalized learning classrooms—are associated with positive academic and social student outcomes as well.
- How do teachers create environments that promote personalized learning?
Collaboration is the key. This is complex work and teachers must work together and with administrators to create a culture around personalized learning with the goal of constantly improving practice. Teachers need to evolve their roles from dispensers of information to designers of curriculum and student-centered learning experiences and environments. Additionally, they need to provide sufficient structure such that over time students can take greater ownership and responsibility for their learning. To do this, educators use tools, technology, and data to enhance classroom instruction, assess individual students’ progress, and identify next steps for meeting students’ needs. Teachers also work with their peers to better identify learners who need intervention or acceleration and support those students sufficiently.
In general, educators need to create personalized learning environments that
- support and deepen student learning;
- foster their own ability and that of their students to ask questions;
- strengthen learners’ metacognitive abilities;
- promote learner independence;
- use technology effectively for learning and demonstrating learning;
- increase opportunities for real-world learning; and
- create learner choice and varied pathways to reach the same set of rigorous high standards.
- Is this approach feasible given teachers’ existing time and resource constraints?
Yes. In schools and districts committed to personalizing learning for all students, teachers receive the support and time they need to shift their practice. Admittedly, personalized learning typically requires a major culture shift, but it is one that can clarify other organizational decisions to support it. While becoming comfortable with a personalized learning approach requires time and commitment, teachers often say it makes their jobs more rewarding as well. Personalized learning can, in fact, make their jobs easier in the long run by allowing them to focus their time and energy on what each student needs to succeed.
- How do principals support personalized learning?
School leaders play a critical role in establishing the vision, building the culture, and creating the enabling conditions for personalized learning to flourish. School leaders should have deep expertise in high-leverage practices, such as
- facilitating collaborative professional learning for teachers;
- leading the development of common metrics for judging student work quality;
- setting expectations for student learning from classroom to classroom;
- reviewing student work regularly; and
- implementing formative assessments that monitor students’ academic progress.
School leaders should build in ample time, personal support, and opportunities for educators to continuously develop and improve their skills.
- How can school districts support personalized learning?
Districts play an important role in creating and supporting the enabling conditions that allow personalized learning to flourish. Districts strengthen curriculum by implementing Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual-enrollment programs and increasing access to applied learning opportunities such as work-based and project-based programs implemented in partnership with community-based organizations. Districts also provide the digital tools and data systems necessary to help teachers track student progress, create early-warning systems that trigger interventions for struggling and off-track students, and plan and implement effective districtwide technology infrastructure and approaches. (For additional information about how districts do this, visit the Alliance’s Future Ready Schools program.)
Districts encourage teachers and school administrators to use performance-based assessment and rethink the use of learning time to better support teaching and learning. Districts also can increase formal and informal learning opportunities for students and teachers by fostering districtwide professional networks that allow teachers and students to collaborate around personalized learning and spread effective practices. Finally, districts should vertically align the pathways between elementary, middle, and high schools to ensure smoother transitions for students and work with higher education partners to improve students’ information about, transition to, and completion of postsecondary learning.
- How does a district or school get started with personalized learning?
A valuable tool for districts interested in personalized learning is Future Ready Schools, an online self-assessment and suite of free resources designed to help district leaders plan and implement personalized, research-based digital learning strategies that enable all students to achieve their full potential. The website also contains information about the Future Ready Regional Summits and workshops, where district and school leaders can connect with other administrators and discuss personalized learning best practices.
To successfully implement personalized learning, though, districts must engage their communities to identify what is, and what is not, working for their students. District and school leaders should solicit as much authentic input and consultation as possible from teachers, administrators, staff, parents, and other community members to establish a clear vision of student success and then decide how to proceed. Typically, this vision initially takes hold with a cohort of committed educators in a select number of schools and expands gradually districtwide as understanding spreads and excitement grows.
Schools and districts embracing personalized learning are experimenting with diverse strategies and developing their own variations to address their students’ specific needs and goals. Some have used project-based learning as their initial vehicle for personalizing learning, while others have emphasized competency-based learning or created multiple learning pathways for students. Still others use a robust deployment of high-quality blended learning to jumpstart their effort and enable students to take greater ownership of their learning.
- What role does technology play in personalized learning?
While all schools and districts using a personalized learning approach use technology effectively to enhance teaching and learning, technology usage in and of itself is not the ultimate goal of personalized learning. However, some technological tools do make personalized learning more viable. For example, digital platforms that help students and teachers monitor student progress in acquiring knowledge and demonstrating skills and that organize next steps in learning often play an important role in personalized learning classrooms. Personalized learning does not treat technology solely as a means for students and teachers to find and consume information; instead, personalized learning treats technology as a tool students use to create work products that demonstrate their knowledge and skills, especially under a competency-based model. New technology also enables the application of universal design of learning principles and the integration of appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities and English language learners.