The Next New Thing: Personalized Learning

One thing about education as a profession—the grass is never allowed to grow under a teacher’s feet for very long. There’s always something new coming down the pike, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does induce a kind of professional dizziness from time to time. Adapting to the “next new thing” is always a challenge, especially if it moves from the periphery onto the center stage in classroom practices. The most recent concept in education is personalized learning, not to be confused with differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction addresses how lessons are delivered to students, based on their individual needs. Personalized learning is more complex.

enotes blog squaresIn its purest form, personalized learning allows students to choose what they will study and to proceed at their own pace in meeting individual goals. Implementing it requires four instructional strategies, which are summarized in “Personalized Learning: A Working Definition”:

  • Continual assessment as a student progresses toward “clearly-defined goals,” with the student advancing and earning credit after demonstrating mastery.
  • Learning environments designed to meet students’ needs in reaching their goals.
  • Customized “learning paths” based on each student’s progress, motivations, and goals.
  • Up-to-date “learner profiles” that chart each student’s strengths, needs, motivations, and goals.

That’s a lot to do after taking attendance! Seriously, it’s a lot to do period, and the current demands of standardized testing make personalized learning seem like a classroom fantasy. It’s a great idea, though, so what can be done to personalize learning in a system based on covering a specific curriculum in a limited amount of time? Apparently, quite a bit, starting with learner profiles.

The learner profile is one part of personalized learning that’s already in place. Learner profiles may not be written down, but they exist, filed in teachers’ minds where they’re continually reviewed and updated. Ask a teacher about particular students, and be prepared for a detailed report on their individual strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. (You’ll also probably find out what’s holding them back or pushing them ahead and who frequently needs to borrow lunch money.) I think we’re good on learner profiles, except perhaps for having students set some specific learning goals for themselves.

The rest of personalized learning has been broken down into five essential elements: Choice, Pace, Path, Mode, and Data. Within these five elements, there’s room to personalize learning even when a teacher is tied to an articulated curriculum and a pacing guide in meeting state standards.

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Choice and Pace

Be creative in writing curriculum-based lesson plans so that they offer students some choice in what they will study.

  • Let students choose their own topics for research papers, allowing them to study what most interests them.
  • Create a list of activities that address students’ interests, different learning styles, and multiple intelligences, and allow them to choose their own activities from the list.
  • Design an independent study project with several parts, and let students decide how they will accomplish each part—what they will read and write and which project activities they will complete.
  • Let students design and pursue their own independent study projects.

Considering the time constraints in a classroom, it’s unlikely that all students will be able to proceed at their own pace, all the time, in completing their work, but it’s usually possible to be somewhat flexible in setting due dates for assignments.

Path and Mode

These elements refer to the ways individual students pursue learning objectives and the means they use in mastering them. Providing students with different learning paths and different modes of study requires making some fundamental changes in instruction. Everyone won’t be doing the same thing at the same time. That sounds like a recipe for chaos, but not necessarily! Check out these examples of how to reorganize instruction efficiently and effectively in personalizing learning, and see four more K-12 examples here. Technology tools and the resources that can be tapped through them can play an essential role in personalized learning. Edutopia offers ten tips for using technology in implementing it.


Regardless of how learning takes place, it has to be assessed. The prospect of writing individual tests for every student is daunting indeed, and actually doing it is most likely impossible. However, there are more ways than testing to assess learning. Learner Centered Teaching lists dozens of ways to do it without giving tests, and using only tests in assessment is a bad idea anyway.

One-size-fits-all never works well, so it’s not surprising that personalizing learning is the ideal way to educate kids. The challenge is figuring out how to accomplish it while simultaneously meeting the demands of … well, everybody. It’s easy to think, “Personalized learning—can’t be done!” It’s true that personalizing every student’s learning, all the time in every way, is probably not possible in today’s classrooms, but there’s plenty of wiggle room in the concept. Exploring how to make the most of it so that kids achieve more and learn in ways that are more natural and meaningful for them is a good use of planning time. This “next new thing” deserves attention.

This is a guest post from eNotes Staff Writer, Susan Hurn. Susan is a former high school English teacher and college instructor. She loves writing for eNotes and also enjoys good books, creative writing, and all things related to history. 

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