In today’s classroom, the pressure is on for both educators and students to succeed. So how does one higher ed instructor provide a learning environment that resonates with dozens if not hundreds of students, each with their own style of learning, to ensure mastery of the subject matter? The answer could come through personalized learning.

Neuroscience reveals that learners show a great deal of variability in three key areas: in what they find motivating (the “why” of learning), in how they are able to take in and process information to make meaning from it (the “what” of learning) and in how they demonstrate their understanding (the “how” of learning)1. Personalized learning pedagogy puts the student at the center of the learning process and encourages them to explore diverse learning pathways to achieve subject mastery—it attempts to address all of this learning variability.

Personalized learning sounds complicated, and maybe even expensive, but as this article outlines, there are many ways that administrators and educators can support this style of learning without overhauling they way they teach.

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Table of contents

1. What is personalized learning?
1.1. Personalized learning “for the learner”
1.2. Personalized learning “by the learner”
1.3. Benefits of personalized learning
2. Use of technology in personalized learning
2.1. Artificial intelligence and personalized learning
3. Examples of personalized learning in action
3.1. Self direction
3.2. Self assessment
3.3. Self reflection
3.4. Overhauling your learning space
4. How personalized learning can be used in higher education
4.1. Project-based learning
5. Caveats for personalized learning
6. References

1. What is personalized learning?

Personalized learning is a term bandied about a lot in K-12 and increasingly in higher ed, but what exactly does it mean? It’s an approach to education that empowers students to learn by the method, and at the pace, that best suits their individualized learning process. In other words, the default perspective is student rather than the instructor or the curriculum. It accommodates not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed. 2

Personalized learning also empowers instructors to tailor lessons to students of different competency levels in an effort to ensure better outcomes. Unlike active learning or blended learning, which have prescriptive approaches, the personalized method is wide open—it’s about meaningfully engaging students by giving them pedagogical freedom buttressed by effective digital tools to support how they learn best.

There are two main ways that personalized learning can be enacted in the classroom:

1.1. Personalized learning “for the learner”

Personalized learning “for the learner” is when an educator provides a tailor-made program for each student based on their needs. While this may be possible for a small group of students, it’s virtually impossible for more than five (though praise be if you’re an educator who can manage it). To implement this strategy, educators can define up to four different student types in their group and produce lessons tailored to each. The educator can set the same task or goal at the start, and then provide four different instructions, routes or end points to help students master the lesson.

1.2. Personalized learning “by the learner”

Personalized learning “by the learner” is when educators set up the flexible framework and guidance for students to develop skills they need to learn most effectively. Instructors are still delivering the lesson content, but at the same time they are helping students develop learner competencies so they can eventually help one another. In the best student-centered education, students spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Although it takes time, eventually this method leads to higher order thinking as students develop learning skills as well as subject mastery.

1.3. Benefits of personalized learning

In many respects, personalized learning is nothing new—educators have always implemented different teaching strategies and techniques to connect with different students. Personalized learning includes providing specialized instruction, and recognizing and building on students’ strengths while mitigating their challenges, all with the goal of creating an environment that’s engaging and sparks the students’ desire to learn.

The benefits of personalized learning are monumental: with multiple ways to access knowledge and build skills, students with different capabilities can maximize their potential for success. This leads to fuller inclusion—all students, no matter their background or competencies, are empowered for achievement.

2. Use of technology in personalized learning

What is new in personalized learning is how it can be implemented and scaled up through educational technology. In today’s classroom, students are no longer bound by the physical space for access to information, knowledge and experts. And a digitally-rich learning environment provides students with context that’s individually relevant for what they are learning.

When used in a thoughtful way, technology opens up many possibilities for learners to find and develop their own voices, take ownership of their learning and become creators of knowledge instead of just passive recipients of information. Digital innovations such as screen-reading tools, text-to-speech programs, readers that remove visual clutter from webpages, visual mapping tools, and audio, video and screencasting tools can have a powerful impact on how students retain and apply knowledge.

Educators can also use programs to free themselves from time-consuming, linear work (like grading math homework) and focus instead on coaching students to master a skill through innovative pathways.

Technology can also make students aware of their progress by receiving formative feedback throughout the course of each activity, not only from the instructor, but also from peers and even the learner him or herself in the form of reflection. Polling and student response tools can easily collect this information and display it in real time to help learners self-assess how their understanding relates to that of their classmates. This also provides administrators and instructors with rich data on what forms of personalized learning are working (or not working) for their students.

2.1. Artificial intelligence and personalized learning

Artificial intelligence for education is in its nascent stages, but it holds intriguing potential for supplementing personalized learning. For example, if a student has trouble comprehending a concept, they will soon be able to call up a virtual advisor that understands common misconceptions about that subject, or arbitrary linguistics around it, and offers myriad ways of breaking it down and interpreting it.3 AI can also help detect and address gaps with student response tools—if students submit the wrong answer to a question, the tech will alert the teacher to the gap in comprehension and also offer students hints to the correct response.

3. Examples of personalized learning in action

Personalized learning: 4 examples

3.1. Self direction

Independent learning, or self-directed learning, is challenging even for very bright, motivated students. Students need to be ready to learn, set learning goals and engage in the learning process. Honest, forthright communication between students and educators is essential for self-directed learning. A framework or contract should be in place to set clear expectations for mastery of material, and should cover things like:

  • Goals for the unit of study
  • Timeline for completion of activities
  • Details about resource materials
  • Details about grading procedures
  • Feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
  • Policies for late or incomplete assignments

3.2. Self assessment

Know thyself: for successful personalized, self-directed learning, students should understand both their productive study habits, as well as how or why they procrastinate. How conducive is their study space for independent work, and what kind of support network do they have both at school and at home to optimize their success?

Taking it one step further, innovative educators are experimenting with self assessment for grading in higher ed. Academic research4 shows that students self-assess realistically when explained the criteria. If expectation and accountability is made clear, and examples are given of effective and ineffective self-assessments, the majority of students give themselves appropriate grades.5

3.3. Self reflection

In order to understand how well they’ve learned or mastered material, students might ask themselves these questions6:

  • How do I know I’ve learned the material?
  • Am I flexible in adapting and applying the knowledge?
  • Do I have confidence in explaining the material?
  • When do I know I’ve learned enough?
  • When is it time for self-reflection, and when is it time to consult with the advising faculty member?

Metacognition is an important part of self-reflection and involves awareness of one’s own thinking and its limits. Educational psychologist Richard Mayer describes this in a 2004 paper as the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning7. These are some phrases that educators can use to prompt metacognition practices in students to promote self-awareness and inclusivity:8

  • “What strategies are you using for this math problem?”
  • “I’ve set the word limit very low on this assignment to force you to…”
  • “Really what that instruction is asking you to do is demonstrate that you know the difference between…”
  • “We’re having a quiz every week so you can practice retrieving information, which is an effective training for…”
  • “The exam questions mainly involve legal case studies, so let’s talk about the processes you could use to analyze a case study.”

3.4. Changing your learning space

In an effective personalized learning environment, instructors are more like facilitators or coaches than deliverers of content. Providing access to appropriate technology is instrumental for students to personalize their learning paths. The instructor then provides appropriate support when it’s indicated, and gives students flexibility around physical space, learning time frames and instructional modalities.

If possible, educators can transform their classroom or lecture hall so that there are different areas or stations based on needs and abilities to accommodate different types of learners. For example, some stations may support inquiry-based, independent learning while others can be designated for group activities. Groups can be based on content, ability and assessment results. Social-based learning, which gives students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, is another important area in the new personalized learning classroom.

4. How personalized learning can be used in higher education

A lot of discussion and action around personalized learning is happening in the K-12 space, which makes sense as this is the time when formative learning skills are developed. But all of the basic principles of personalized learning can and should be used in higher education—especially given concerning trends in college attendance and completion rates.

Higher ed is where students can put personalized learning skills into practice and potentially mitigate some of the barriers to post-secondary success.

For students who are working professionals, or who work part-time to fund their education, a flexible approach like personalized learning gives them the scope to study course materials in their own time and adjust to demands from their job or family, and to study in non-traditional settings. Smartphones and WiFi mean that they can access learning materials from home, on breaks at work or while on public transit.

Elevating student engagement is another concern for many higher ed instructors, and to achieve that goal, learning has to be relevant and meaningful on a personal level to students.

4.1. Project-based learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is one approach that ties instruction to real-world concerns that matter to students, and it works especially well in higher ed. With PBL, learners gain knowledge and skills as they investigate an authentic and complex problem or challenge over an extended period of time. Learners may do online research as well as go out into their communities to gather information through surveys and interviews that place the problem in a more personally meaningful context.

As they learn about the problem, students engage in ongoing reflection about not only their emerging understandings but also the process involved in their inquiry. At the conclusion of the project, they make their work public, often by sharing it with a wider audience through a classroom website or blog. This type of work encompasses many of the tenets of personalized learning: flexible, independent activity, self-reflection, working beyond the classroom walls, peer-to-peer collaboration, and using digital content and tools in a purposeful way.

5. Caveats for personalized learning

Ultimately, all of these personalized learning tools and strategies have to mesh with the work of instructors, educators and administrators, who will make their own judgments about what’s working.

Technology is an important supplement to help educators engage as many students as possible and to help them succeed (especially when time and resources are limited), but nothing will ultimately replace the teacher and the teacher’s ability to know what a student needs.

The role of the teacher is as important in personalized learning as in traditional education; technology can simply be used to free up time for instructors to provide individual attention to the students who need it.

6. References

1. Perez, L. and Grant, K. (2018, April 1). 30+ tools for diverse learners
[Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=434

2. Cavanagh, S. (2014, October 22). ‘Personalized Learning’ Eludes Easy Definitions. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09pl-overview.h34.html

3. Newton, C. (2016, April 25). Can AI fix education? We asked Bill Gates. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2016/4/25/11492102/bill-gates-interview-education-software-artificial-intelligence

4. Crowell, Tara L. (2016, April 5). Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality
American Journal of Educational Research. Retrieved from http://pubs.sciepub.com/education/3/4/10/

5. Preville, P. (2017, September 15). Orchestrating Engagement: Self-Assessment for Music Students. [Blog post] Retrieved from https://tophat.com/blog/self-assessment-innovative-educators/

6. Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/tips-students/self-directed-learning/self-directed-learning-four-step-process

7. Mayer, Richard E. (2002) Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory Into Practice, 41(4) pp. 226-232.

8. Quevillon, K. (2018, June 25). The Secrets of the Cognitive Domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://tophat.com/blog/cognitive-domain-blooms-taxonomy/