When it comes to accommodations, preferred modality and academic interests, no two students learn the same way. Enter personalized learning, a potential solution to these challenges. Personalized learning—where course delivery and learning activities are tailored to meet unique needs—celebrates a diversity of student learning styles and acknowledges the varying circumstances that many are living through. Below, we share approaches and tips for personalizing your classroom.

1. What is personalized learning?

Personalized learning is an instructional approach that empowers students to learn by the method and pace that best suits their needs. This learning strategy accommodates not only students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, lived experiences and comprehension levels.

Personalized learning is an essential part of making the classroom engaging and inviting. This pedagogy acknowledges that, more than ever, teaching and learning may not occur at the same time and place. It takes into consideration the fact that academia now competes with familial, employment and caretaking responsibilities. Unlike active learning or blended learning, which are more prescriptive, personalized learning sees educators tailor the course experience according to specific student needs.

Neuroscience reveals that students show a great deal of variability in three areas: in what they find motivating (the ‘why’ of learning), in how they’re 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 There are two models for implementing personalized learning in the classroom: personalized learning ‘for the learner’ and ‘by the learner.’

1.1. Personalized learning ‘for the learner’

Personalized learning ‘for the learner’ is when an educator emphasizes individualization to meet a learner’s needs, which has the potential to maximize student achievement. Providing a tailor-made program for each student based on their learning needs and accessibility requirements may be possible for those teaching small classes. Continuous feedback loops and a more intimate learning environment allow faculty to get to know students better.

To enhance student achievement, collaboration between instructors and students is  essential. Instructors must collaborate with students to create an education program that prioritizes individualization—focusing on students’ circumstances and skill levels. Developing a strong teacher-student bond is the first step in ensuring student success. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation emphasizes how curricula needs to be delivered in a way that benefits the student—whether that be through instructors, group instruction, online learning, external teaching experts or a combination of all of these methods.2

No matter where instruction takes place, here are some ways for faculty to get to know and collaborate with students.

ActivityWhy this strategy works
Student interest inventoriesThese forms capture interests, learning experiences and learning styles. Pose questions that ask about academic interests, hobbies and study circumstances via an online discussion forum or survey. After students respond with their answers, use these insights to tailor parts of your course accordingly.
IcebreakersThese games help you get to know your students’ non-academic interests. Most icebreaker activities can be run in person and in hybrid or online classes. All icebreakers are designed to help you better understand your students’ needs and preferences.
Diagnostic testsDiagnostic assessments help you understand students’ pre-existing knowledge and misconceptions. Quizzes are one of the most common ways to gauge students’ pre-existing knowledge. Alternatively, have students create concept maps—visual representations of how ideas are connected—and submit these drawings using chart paper or your learning management system (LMS).

1.2. Personalized learning ‘by the learner’

Personalized learning ‘by the learner’ is when educators set up a flexible framework and provide guidance for students to develop the skills they need to learn most effectively. Instructors are still delivering the course content, but at the same time, they’re helping students develop learner competencies required for peer-peer learning. 

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. Learning under the guidance of an instructor can help students realize where they may want to direct their future study efforts. Additionally, students may not realize what topics they struggle with until instructors collaborate with them via assignments and one-on-ones. 

Collaboration between and among students doesn’t have to suffer with remote learning. Here are some simple practices to help students learn from one another.

ActivityWhy this strategy works
Peer review assignmentsWhen students grade one another’s work—by leaving comments on a document, for example—you strengthen mutual learning while students better understand how to provide constructive feedback on their peers’ strengths and weaknesses.
Weekly review sessionsSessions held by teaching assistants (TAs) in advance of an assignment or high-stakes test can make students aware of common areas of confusion—plus, TAs are available to troubleshoot issues in small groups. Ask your TAs to dedicate one office hour session to this activity in advance of a test.
Personalized learning playlistsSet a rotation of learning activities related to your topic. These might include digital content, group activities or individual reflection exercises. Students are given the autonomy to select the learning activity that works best for them. Consider setting equal grade values to each activity to make this process fair.
Informal channels for student communicationLet students keep in touch with their peers, and with you, outside of your in-person class. Video conferencing and community-based software lets students collaborate from anywhere. Students can live chat, create custom channels and loop in their TAs and professors in threads to receive responses in minutes.

1.3. The benefits of personalized learning

By catering course content to students’ unique circumstances and learning needs, you encourage student-centered learning, which drives engagement—the ultimate goal of any class. And when course content is more representative of your course cohort, students are more likely to feel comfortable engaging with the material. 

Even if you teach fully in person, technology can help meet student needs in a more timely fashion. There are a number of other benefits of using education technology to create more tailored learning experiences. By using technology to create personalized learning plans, student achievement and test scores improved by an average of 30 percent.3 Personalized learning also provides more accurate data of where learners have excelled and struggled.

Adjusting your teaching strategies and course delivery to make the learning experience more inclusive, personalized and inviting for all students will empower all learners—no matter where learning takes place.

2. Best practices for using technology in personalized learning

Technology plays an integral role in bringing learning to life—no matter what modality you teach in. Since learning and teaching may not occur at the same time, technology can help bridge the gap. Specifically, education technology has the ability to amplify student concerns, frustrations or confusion around course material. It also ensures students are active members of the learning experience as opposed to passive recipients of information. Here are some strategies to incorporate technology into your personalization process:

  1. Leverage the capabilities of your LMS or ed tech platform: Ensure you incorporate ways for students to engage with you and their peers at their own pace. Even if you’re teaching fully in person, making effective use of your LMS can help extend learning beyond your traditional classroom. Asynchronous discussions in your LMS also let students reflect on topics and themes at a time that they are comfortable with. Discover how Top Hat’s discussions give students an engaging and collaborative learning experience: before, during and after class.
  2. Stop-start-continue activities: This no-stakes exercise asks students to list what you might remove from your course delivery and what you might start incorporating and continue doing in your course. Consider using a polling platform or leave an online discussion forum open to facilitate this activity as homework.
  3. Consider the rule of twos in course design: Aligned with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for ensuring accessible practices—the rule of twos means considering two or more ways for students to interact with content. For example, use technology to complement in-person lectures with lecture recordings—and make them accessible via your LMS or Top Hat.
  4. Embark on global collaborative projects: Collaboration doesn’t only have to take place between students in your own class. Consider having students connect with international classes via video chat. Alternatively, host virtual field trips relevant to your discipline. For instance, if you teach an astronomy course, consider inviting someone from NASA to give a guest lecture to your class. You might also select a program that allows for virtual simulations that students can complete as part of an in-person learning activity. This allows students to collaborate in person while getting hands-on exposure to a relevant area of their course.4

Educators can use technology and other programs to free themselves from time-consuming work such as grading homework. They can instead focus on mentoring students while being an active support system.

Polling and student response tools let educators take a real-time pulse of comprehension. Formative assessments, which are low-stakes assessments distributed throughout the semester, give students an indication of how they’re performing. For professors, these insights spotlight where students may need some extra support. By showing student responses in class as word clouds or graphs, learners can self-assess how their understanding relates to that of their classmates. TAs and faculty can further personalize tutorials or lectures to meet student needs.

3. Examples of personalized learning in action

3.1. Self-direction

Independent learning, or self-directed learning, is the epitome of student-centered learning. Students take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, form learning goals and implement learning strategies and techniques that work for them. Honest, forthright communication between students and instructors is essential for self-directed learning and independent study to work. 

For instance, seeking clarification from instructors early on will improve students’ self-directed study efforts. A framework or contract should be in place to set clear expectations for mastery of material and to ensure that individual students are set up for success, no matter where you teach. Here are some factors to consider when working with students to form their individualized learning plans.

Goals for the unit of study
Details about where to access academic and non-academic resources
Feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
Timeline for completing activities
Details about grading procedures and what rubrics look like
Policies for late or incomplete assignments along with participation requirements

3.2. Self-assessment

Self-assessment allows students to evaluate their performance as well as that of their peers. This instructional process may allow students to become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses with course content and learning strategies. A 2015 study5 from Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey shows that students self-assess realistically in a formative assessment environment when they understand the grading criteria. If expectation and accountability are made clear, and instructors provide examples of effective and ineffective self-assessments, the majority of students give themselves appropriate grades.6

The following is a four-stage model7 for incorporating self-assessment into your classroom.

  1. Involve students: Let students in on which criteria they are being evaluated on. This gives them a chance to seek clarification and to collaborate with you to ensure alignment in the grading process.
  2. Differentiate between A, B or C grades: Ensure students are aware of the different levels of the evaluation criteria. Consider sharing examples of (anonymous) papers that were graded as A, B or C from previous years.
  3. Provide feedback: Help students focus their self-evaluations by giving timely and appropriate feedback. For example, let students know what their feedback could have looked like while praising their current efforts.
  4. Develop productive goals for future assessments: Help students connect their level of achievement to their learning strategies. Consider asking students: “How much time was spent self-assessing?” Or, “How did you go about providing constructive feedback?” Help students reflect on their previous assessments and use those insights to generate a plan for the next round.

3.3. Self-reflection

In order to understand how well they’ve learned or mastered material, students should seek feedback and reflect on their achievements. The latter can be done by asking the following questions:8

  • 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?

Part of the self-reflection process involves metacognition—an awareness of one’s own thinking and its limits. Educational psychologist Richard Mayer describes this as the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning.9 Rote learning refers to rapidly memorizing and recalling information, whereas meaningful learning helps students understand how all pieces of an entire concept or unit fit together. The following are some phrases that educators can use to prompt metacognition practices to promote self-awareness and inclusivity:10

  • “What strategies are you using for this math problem?”
  • “I’ve set the word limit very low on this assignment to force you to…”
  • “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 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.”

4. How education technology enhances personalized learning

Whether in person or online, personalization can be the difference between student success and remediation. A personalized learning experience, where students are empowered with the tools, processes and procedures necessary for their own growth, can no longer be an afterthought in higher education.

Educational technology and online learning tools allow students to complete assignments from anywhere, making it easy to balance school work with extracurriculars, employment and familial responsibilities. Ed tech or learning management systems (LMS) also strengthen feedback loops between educator and student. Even if students aren’t able to attend class in person, collaborative homework assignments and activities can make them feel part of a larger learning community. 

Students are also more likely to engage with their peers, faculty and content if their learning program is tailored to their preferences. For instance, custom due dates, modality and structure for group assignments can make students feel as if their needs are being accounted for in your course. Project-based learning is one method to ensure students have access to timely and relevant case studies, which translate into relevant class discussions. Discover how Top Hat allows for a flexible assignment process, with the ability to customize due dates and grade weights for select students.

4.1. Project-based learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach that ties instruction to real-world concerns that matter to students. PBL allows students to immerse themselves in authentic and complex problems over an extended period of time. Learners may conduct research or collect information through surveys and interviews that position the problem in a more personally meaningful context. This instructional approach is a more transformative, experiential alternative to the traditional essay assessment. It ensures that students are well informed about contemporary issues and may help reveal new areas of interest.

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 end of the project, students are able to 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: flexibility, independent activity and self-reflection. Top Hat’s interactive textbooks allow for project-based learning outside of the classroom. Educators can update chapters on the fly, adding in contemporary news stories and case studies to keep learning material fresh.

5. Personalization enhances student learning

When given some thought, personalization in the classroom can make for a more comfortable, connected and collaborative learning experience. Ed tech—an asset to any classroom—has enabled faculty to take students’ pulse on what and how learning looks like today. While personalized teaching may be new, start by thinking about how accessibility, communication and collaboration take place in your class and strengthen your personalized learning community from there.

→ Free download: Back-to-school toolkit with activities to personalize your course

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. Postsecondary Success (2015). Gates Foundation. https://usprogram.gatesfoundation.org/what-we-do/postsecondary-success
  3. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (n.d.). The Benefits of Personalized Learning Through Technology. Online Programs, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. https://onlineprograms.smumn.edu/meldt/masters-of-education-in-learning-design-and-technology/resources/benefits-of-personalized-learning-technology
  4. Flory, T. (2016, Dec. 22). If you do any of these 4 activities in your classroom, you’re already personalizing learning. Ed Surge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-12-22-if-you-do-any-of-these-4-activities-in-your-classroom-you-re-already-personalizing-learning
  5. 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/
  6. Preville, P. (2017, September 15). Orchestrating Engagement: Self-Assessment for Music Students. [Blog post] Retrieved from https://tophat.com/blog/self-assessment-innovative-educators/
  7. Rolheiser, C., and Ross, J.A. (2013). Student Self-Evaluation: What Research Says and What Practice Shows. The Center for Development & Learning. https://moodle.manistee.org/pluginfile.php/59439/course/section/16807/STUDENT%20SELF-EVALUATION%20WHAT%20RESEARCH%20SAYS%20AND%20WHAT%20PRACTICE%20SHOWS.pdf
  8. 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
  9. Mayer, Richard E. (2002) Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory Into Practice, 41(4) pp. 226-232.
  10. 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/

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