With the traditional classroom rocked by changes that will be with us for the foreseeable future, online learning is now a staple of the postsecondary learning experience. In this modality, students learn at a variety of times, places and paces. However, they may feel isolated and miss the sense of community that came with in-person learning. 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 online classroom.
Table of contents
- What is personalized learning?
- Personalized learning ‘for the learner’
- Perseonalized learning ‘by the learner’
- The benefits of personalized learning
- Best practices for using technology in personalized learning
- Examples of personalized learning in action
- How ed tech enhances personalized learning
- Project-based learning
- Personalization enhances student learning
1. What is personalized learning?
Personalized learning is an instructional approach that empowers students to learn by the method, and at the 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 essential in a remote learning environment. This pedagogy responds to and acknowledges that, more than ever before, students may be learning at their own pace. Plus, 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 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 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 own learning style may be possible for a small class. 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 a must-have. 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 students’ curricula needs to be delivered in a way that benefits the student—whether that be through instructors, group instruction, online learning, remote experts or a combination of all of these methods.2
With so much learning now occurring behind a screen, here are some ways for faculty to get to know and collaborate with students.
|Activity||Why it works|
|Student interest inventories||These forms capture interests, learning experiences and learning styles. Create a long answer question in Top Hat asking about academic interests, hobbies and study circumstances. After students respond with their answers, use these insights to tailor parts of your course accordingly.|
|Icebreakers||These games help you get to know your students’ non-academic interests. Video conferencing software and discussion forums are generally required for most icebreaker activities. These tools allow for live or self-paced learning.|
|Diagnostic tests||These no-stakes assessments help you understand students’ pre-existing knowledge and misconceptions. Set up multiple choice questions in Top Hat to administer quizzes. Alternatively, have students create concept maps—visual representations of how ideas are connected—and submit these drawings using the file submission question.|
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 course content, but at the same time, they are helping students develop learner competencies required for peer-peer learning. Here’s what we mean: 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 they don’t know until instructors collaborate with them via assignments and 1:1s.
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.
|Activity||Why it works|
|Peer review assignments||By letting students grade one another’s work—by leaving comments on a document, for example—you strengthen mutual learning while students learn how to provide constructive feedback on their peers’ strengths and weaknesses.|
|Weekly review sessions||Sessions 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. Livestream a review session in Top Hat’s virtual classroom and invite students to join.|
|Informal channels for student communication||Slate, Top Hat’s new community tool, lets students communicate and collaborate from anywhere. Students can video conference, 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, the following benefits emerge: Student-centered learning drives engagement—the ultimate goal of all online classes. When course content is more representative of your course cohort, students are more likely to feel comfortable engaging with the material. 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 student 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 is now at the forefront of the learning process—meaning that instructors have an array of tools to pull from when creating a personalized classroom. Since learning and teaching do not always occur at the same time anymore, technology can help bridge the gap. 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.
- Virtual office hours: Appointment-based office hours allow students to connect with you 1:1 and to receive instant responses to their questions. An online scheduling system ensures you are “radically available” to listen to students and understand how you might personalize their learning experience.
- Leverage the capabilities of your LMS: Ensure you incorporate ways for students to engage with you and their peers at their own pace. Comparatively, some students may be shy to speak out on issues in your live class. Asynchronous discussions in your LMS let students reflect on topics and themes at a time that they are comfortable with.
- 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. In Top Hat, students can submit PDF files of their responses using the file submission question type. Similarly, the long answer question lets students respond in depth.
- 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 live lectures with lecture recordings—and make them accessible via your LMS or Top Hat.
Especially with online learning, educators can use resources and other programs to free themselves from time-consuming, linear work such as grading homework. They can instead focus on mentoring students while being an active support system for students to turn to through the semester.
Polling and student response tools promote digital learning through collecting and displaying data in real time. Formative assessments, which are low-stakes assessments distributed through the semester, give students an indication of how they are 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.
2.1. Artificial intelligence and personalized learning
Transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence could possibly enhance students’ achievement. AI 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.3AI 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
Independent learning, or self-directed learning, is the new norm in a remote learning environment. This instructional design model 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 in a heavily remote learning experience. Here are some factors to consider when working with students to form their individualized learning plans.
Details about where to access academic and non-academic resources
Feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
Details about grading procedures and what rubrics look like
Policies for late or incomplete assignments
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 study4 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.5
The following is a four-stage model6 for incorporating self-assessment into your online classroom.
- Involve students: Let students in on which criteria they are being evaluated on. This gives a chance to seek clarification early on and allows them to collaborate with you to ensure alignment in the grading process.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In order to understand how well they have learned or mastered material, students should seek feedback and reflect on their achievements. The latter can be done by asking the following questions.7
- 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.8 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.9
- “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.”
4. How ed tech enhances personalized learning
Online learning isn’t going anywhere. If anything, this modality may be the way of the future. With so much learning happening at students’ own pace, and with little-to-no face-to-face interaction with faculty, 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 public education.
Personalized learning enables students to complete course work at a time and pace that suits their needs. Some students will have to juggle jobs, while others will have to take care of family members. Others simply may not have reliable access to the Internet. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to course delivery—and personalization in the classroom acknowledges that.
Educational technology and online learning tools allow students to complete assignments from anywhere, making it easy to complete work at their own pace. Ed tech or learning management systems (LMS) strengthen feedback loops between educator and student. Students may not be able to raise their hands in class, but discussion boards, emails or informal communication channels replicate the feel of a personalized traditional classroom. Plus, students are more likely to engage with their peers, faculty and content if their learning program is tailored to their preferences—such as due dates, modality and structure for group assignments. Project-based learning is a method to ensure students have access to timely and relevant case studies, which translate into relevant class discussions.
4.1. Project-based learning
Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach that ties instruction to real-world concerns that matter to students. With COVID-19 continuing to disrupt the economic, social and environmental aspects of life, there is no shortage of timely case studies to pull from. PBL allows students to immerse themselves in authentic and complex problems over an extended period of time. Learners may conduct online 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.
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—a vital component to the online classroom—has enabled faculty to take students’ pulse on where, when and how they would like to learn in the midst of a pandemic that shows no signs of letting up. While personalized teaching may be new, start by thinking about how accessibility, communication and collaboration take place online and strengthen your personalized learning community from there.
The traditional classroom offered plenty of opportunities to build personalization and community among students. We offer tips and tools to strengthen your online learning community in our new ebook—available to read or download here.
- 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
- K-12 Education Team (2015). Personalized Learning: What Is It? Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2340&filename=Personalized-Learning-What-is-it.pdf
- 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
- 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/
- Preville, P. (2017, September 15). Orchestrating Engagement: Self-Assessment for Music Students. [Blog post] Retrieved from https://tophat.com/blog/self-assessment-innovative-educators/
- 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
- 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
- Mayer, Richard E. (2002) Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory Into Practice, 41(4) pp. 226-232.
- 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/