Personalized Learning: Four Elements that Support All Students

Personalized learning is an educational framework that supports all students as they gain the knowledge, skills, and characteristics of a twenty-first-century learner and citizen of the world. The basic underpinning of this framework is that the most effective instruction adjusts to meet each student’s individual strengths, needs, and goals. This blog focuses on four elements of personalized learning: student ownership of learning, formal and informal assessment data, developing learner profiles and learning pathways, and utilizing flexible learning environments.

Student Ownership of Learning

In a personalized learning framework, responsibility for the learning and culture is shared by students and teachers. To foster the students’ sense of responsibility, teachers create a collaborative classroom community at the same time that they provide rigorous academic instruction. In this community, students feel empowered, supported in taking risks, and responsible to themselves and the group. They learn how to agree and disagree respectfully, share opinions and listen carefully to the opinions of others, and reflect on their interactions with one another and brainstorm ways to avoid problems in the future. These skills effectively transform the learning environment into one that is student-centered.

The learning in this collaborative community becomes personalized when teachers engage in one-on-one conferences with students to work on a particular skill or strategy that is being learned, and to provide guidance for applying that learning to each student’s own reading and writing. The discussions in these conferences provide guidance to the students so they know what they are learning, why they are learning it, how they will learn it, and how they will know and show what they have learned. Outside of these conferences, students have opportunities to engage with one another around the content, practicing what they have learned as they apply it.

Formal and Informal Assessment Data

Teachers who utilize a personalized learning framework also use evidence of learning from multiple sources, including pre- and post-assessments and frequent formative assessments, to create a unique learner profile for each student. The summative assessments enable teachers to evaluate and measure students’ learning growth as a result of instruction, while the formative assessments, which include observations and individual conference notes, help teachers reflect on students’ growth over time. The multiple data points that the assessments provide can be used to identify each student’s strengths and needs. With this picture of the “whole child” as a learner and citizen of the world, teachers can tailor instruction to the individual, beginning at each student’s developmental level and scaffolding the learning experience from that base.

Developing Learner Profiles and Learning Pathways

The unique learner profiles inform the development of student-specific learning pathways. To develop learner profiles, the knowledge, skills, and traits of a college- and career-ready graduate are recorded alongside each student’s individual strengths, areas for growth, and learning goals.  Multiple sources are used to develop this profile and keep it current, including pre- and post- summative assessments and formative assessments throughout the year. Using the learner profiles they’ve developed, the teacher collaborates with each student to create an individualized learning pathway that supports the student in achieving standards-based academic outcomes. The learning pathways are constantly adjusted as each student progresses through instruction to meet and go beyond the outcomes.

The pacing of instruction in a classroom based on learning pathways is different from that in a traditional classroom, where pacing is typically determined by a general scope and sequence based on district timelines and state standards. In a personalized classroom, the pace of instruction is based on individual student needs: an individual student may spend more time on one topic or standard or accelerate through another based on their personal learning pathway.

Utilizing Flexible Learning Environments

The learning environment in a collaborative classroom takes into account the diverse needs of each individual student: the learning space is adjusted to meet the needs of both the learners and the instruction; anchor charts provide constant support; students are gathered closely together during whole-class lessons to allow them to hear and respond to one another; classroom libraries are organized to help students easily locate books of interest at their reading levels; and well-established procedures and routines allow students to work independently at stations while the teacher works with small groups.

Through whole-class instruction and individual conferences, students become independent learners who have the propensity to extend learning beyond the lesson and school day into all aspects of their lives.

It is important to remember that personalized learning is a framework that looks different from district to district, school to school, and classroom to classroom. Whatever the setting, the framework demonstrates a common trait: student-focused first. Starting from a clear understanding of students’ strengths, skills, and needs can transform a traditional setting into a personalized classroom.  

References: This framework was developed using resources from the South Carolina Department of Personalized Learning, iNACOL, and KnowledgeWorks.