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Personalized Learning Empowers Students to Take Ownership of Their Learning

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March 13, 2017 12:00 pm


Riverside, California, has a reputation for forward thinking and has received national recognition for its use of technology. So, it is not surprising that a community that calls itself “the city of arts and innovation” has adopted a pioneering approach to classroom instruction.

Last school year, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) launched a pilot program to provide its students with a more individualized learning experience. This student-centered approach, known as personalized learning, tailors instruction to students’ unique strengths and needs while engaging them in challenging, standards-based academic content, empowering students to direct their own learning. RUSD initially implemented personalized learning in two middle schools and two elementary schools, targeting 120–150 students in each school. This school year, RUSD expanded the instructional approach to two high schools and a third elementary school to personalize learning for approximately 5,000 of the district’s 42,000 students.

“We’re finally going to be doing something that is going to be engaging kids individually and reaching them in a way that interests them,” says Kathy Allavie, member of the RUSD Board of Education, of the district’s shift to personalized learning.

The engaging student-centered aspects of personalized learning have garnered strong support from parents and teachers and address many of the concerns both groups have about traditional approaches to education. In a nationwide survey conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, 79 percent of parents and 73 percent of teachers of underserved students said the current one-size-fits-all approach that most schools take toward instruction shortchanges students. Eighty-two percent of teachers and 76 percent of parents believe students need more opportunities for deeper learning through project-based learning across subjects, while about two-thirds of each group believe giving students more ownership of their learning will engage students more deeply in their education. Most importantly, the overwhelming majority of parents (71 percent) and teachers (77 percent) are comfortable with schools using new and different approaches, like personalized learning, to accomplish these goals. Early evidence suggests that students in personalized learning classrooms show improvement in math and reading test scores across all achievement levels, as the infographic shows below.

Personalized Learning infographic1

Just as personalized learning tailors instruction to students’ individual strengths, interests, and needs, schools and districts implementing personalized learning likewise customize the approach based on their unique circumstances. For instance, RUSD’s approach emphasizes competency-based advancement, which allows students to progress through academic content at their own pace based on their mastery of key concepts rather than simply through classroom seat time. New Technical West High School in Cleveland, Ohio, engages students through interdisciplinary student-directed projects that encourage critical thinking and collaboration. Meanwhile, students in California’s Porterville Unified School District pursue a combination of rigorous academics, career-based learning in the classroom, and work-based learning in specific industry-theme pathways that provide students with a relevant and personalized learning experience.

Although their specific approaches might differ, schools and districts implementing personalized learning share some common characteristics. Teachers, school staff, and other adults in these schools

  • develop caring and trusting relationships with their students;
  • understand each student’s strengths, interests, and needs;
  • target instruction and resources to help students progress at their own pace;
  • equip teachers and students with technology and data to enhance learning and assess student progress;
  • create flexible learning environments; and
  • connect learning to the real world.

At its core, personalized learning is designed to help all students, regardless of their academic level, age, motivation, or background, develop their abilities to think critically, solve complex problems, collaborate, communicate effectively, and direct their own learning—skills necessary for college, career, and life success.

“The power behind personalized learning is that it moves us, it ignites us, it inspires us,” says Lynn Carmen Day, RUSD chief academic officer.

To learn more about how schools and districts are personalizing student learning and to watch videos about their experiences, visit For tools and resources to support school districts implementing a personalized learning approach, visit

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Future Ready, Personalized Learning

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