Personalized learning: What you need to know

At a glance

  • Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to customize learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills, and interests.

  • Each student gets a learning plan that’s based on what they know and how they learn best.

  • Personalized learning doesn’t replace an IEP, a 504 plan, or intervention programs.

To get an idea of what personalized learning is, try to picture a classroom that doesn’t have a “one size fits all” approach to education. The teacher doesn’t lead all students through the same lessons. Instead, the teacher guides each student on an individualized journey. The what, when, where and how of learning is tailored to meet each student’s strengths, skills, needs, and interests.

Students may learn some skills at different paces. But their learning plans still keep them on track to meet the standards for a high school diploma.

That kind of classroom isn’t the reality for most students. But it’s the end goal of personalized learning, which is already being used successfully in some schools and is expanding in several states. Here’s what you need to know.

What personalized learning is

Kids learn in different ways and at different paces. Personalized learning is a teaching model based on that premise. Each student gets a “learning plan” based on how they learn, what they know, and what their skills and interests are. It’s the opposite of the “one size fits all” approach used in most schools.

Students work with their teachers to set both short-term and long-term goals. This process helps students take ownership of their learning.

Teachers make sure learning plans or project-based learning match up with academic standards. And they check to see if students are demonstrating the skills they’re expected to learn as they progress through their education.

Personalized learning is not a replacement for . It’s an approach to general education that can work with an (IEP), a , response to intervention, or other specialized intervention programs.

But accommodations, supports, and accessible learning strategies need to be essential parts of personalized learning. If done well, all students will be more engaged in their learning. And struggling students will get help sooner. If not done well, students with disabilities could fall further behind.

How personalized learning works

No two schools using personalized learning will look exactly the same. But here are four widely used models that schools follow. Each of these models sets high expectations for all students and aligns their learning to a set of rigorous standards.

1. Schools that use learner profiles. This type of school keeps an up-to-date record that provides a deep understanding of each student’s individual strengths, needs, motivations, progress and goals. These profiles are updated far more often than a standard report card. And these detailed updates help teachers make decisions to positively impact student learning.

A learner profile also helps students keep track of their own progress. It gives the teacher, the student and, in many schools, the parent a way to know if they need to change a learning method or make changes to goals — before the student does poorly or fails.

2. Schools that use personalized learning paths. This type of school helps each student customize a learning path that responds or adapts based on progress, motivations, and goals. For instance, a school might create a student’s schedule based on weekly updates about academic progress and interests.

Each student’s schedule is unique. But it’s likely to include several learning methods. (These are often called modalities.) The mix might include project-based learning with a small group of peers, independent work on certain skills or complex tasks, and one-on-one tutoring with a teacher.

A personalized learning path allows a student to work on different skills at different paces. But that doesn’t mean the school will let a student fall far behind in any area. Teachers closely monitor each student and provide extra support as needed.

3. Schools that use competency-based progression. This type of school continually assesses students to monitor their progress toward specific goals. This system makes it clear to students what they need to master. These competencies include specific skills, knowledge and mindsets like developing resilience.

Students are given options of how and when to demonstrate their mastery. For example, a student might work with a teacher to weave certain math skills into an internship at a retail store.

The student might work on several competencies at the same time. When they master one, they move on to the next. Each student gets the necessary support or services to help master the skills. The emphasis isn’t on taking a test and getting a passing or failing grade. Instead, it’s about continuous learning and having many chances to show knowledge.

4. Schools using flexible learning environments. This type of school adapts the environment students learn in, based on how they learn best. That includes things like the physical setup of the class, how the school day is structured and how the teachers are allocated.

For example, schools might look for ways to give teachers more time for small group instruction. It’s not easy to redesign the way teachers use space, time and resources in the classroom. But this type of design thinking can help student needs reshape the learning environment.

The potential of personalized learning

Personalized learning isn’t widely used in schools yet. Many aspects still need to be explored. But this approach has the potential to help reduce the stigma of special education and better meet the needs of kids with learning and thinking differences.

IEPs are too often focused mainly on deficits. But personalized learning paths can balance that by focusing on students’ strengths and interests. Together, IEPs and personalized learning can give kids the supports to work on weaknesses and a customized path that engages their interests and helps them “own” their learning.

Personalized learning can also give students the chance to build self-advocacy skills. It encourages them to speak up about what interests them. It also allows them to be equal partners in their learning experience.

Personalized learning has a lot of potential, but it also has some risks. Teachers might not have enough inclusion training to make this approach accessible to all students. They might not know how to support kids with . They might not know how to track competencies or analyze other kinds of student data.

The key is to make sure that when schools start using personalized learning, teachers have the training to meet your child’s needs. And the more you know, the more involved you can be in the conversation.

Ready for more information? See how one charter school is using personalized learning for kids with learning and thinking differences. For a deeper dive, you can explore personalized learning trends across the nation. You can also learn how to advocate for teacher training to help your child’s school start using personalized learning.

Key takeaways

  • There are several models of personalized learning that schools can use.

  • Personalized learning may help reduce the stigma of special education.

  • Teachers often need more training to fully include struggling students in personalized learning.


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