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March 23, 2017
Vol. 12
No. 14

Six Tips for Making Personalized Learning Work

Without a clear definition aligned to a toolkit of instructional supports, teachers will struggle to integrate personalized learning into their classroom curriculums. Based on my own teaching experiences and research-based literature review, I've collected these six tips to help teachers close the knowing and doing gaps that stymie personalization implementation.

Tip 1: Clearly Define Personalized Learning

During my literature reviews, I learned that teachers often confuse individualized and differentiated learning with personalized learning (Basye, 2014). A focused definition of PL allows teachers to determine the pedagogical practices that support or align with this learning. Table 1 defines PL and the characteristics of personalized learning environments (PLE) that I've uncovered after an extensive, research-based literature review.
Table 1. Summary of PL Definition and Characteristics of PLE

Personalized learning


DefinitionPersonal learning or instruction is a method of teaching that tailors learning for each student's strengths and motivations, needs, and interests—including enabling student's voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards attainable.Basye, 2014; Bray & McClaskey, 2014; iNACOL, 2016; Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013
Characteristics of PLE• Student-centered • Student voice and choice in their education • Flexible learning environments • Each student has an up-to-date record of his/her individual strengths, needs, motivations, and goals • Progress is continuously monitored by the learner • The learner(s) builds a network of peers, experts, and teachers to guide and support their learningBasham, Hall, Carter & Stahl, 2016; Bray & McClaskey, 2014; Reigeluth, et.al., 2015

Tip 2: Understand the Pedagogical Shift

PL leads to student-centered teaching and learning approaches (Basham, Hall & Carter, 2016). These include, but are not limited to: collaboration, inquiry, discovery, exploration, construction, personal progress tracking, self-assessment, and peer-assessment. This shift to student-centered pedagogy allows students to take ownership of their learning and to create their own knowledge.

Tip 3: Create Learner Profiles

Most teachers are instructed to collect classroom demographic data at the beginning of the semester and use it to adapt and modify instruction. But this information is limiting because it tends to focus solely on needs without recognizing the strengths to build on. To make this data more meaningful and to support ongoing PL, students can create learner profiles.
Learner profiles can include student strengths, interests, dislikes, life experiences, how they like to learn, what they do when they struggle in school, supports that have worked in the past, and more. As a living, continuously updated document of students' strengths, needs, motivations, and supports, learner profiles give students a voice in the curriculum and an ability to shape the instruction they experience. As students develop and make cognitive gains, their learner profile can reflect those changes.

Tip 4: Promote Student Self-Regulation Skills

Although PL aims to liberate individual potential, it puts more responsibility on teachers to make critical instructional decisions and tasks students to self-regulate their learning in a more fluid environment. Basham et.al. (2016) argued that "from a design perspective, because of various interactions that must take place among the students and the technology as well as the student and the teacher, it could be hypothesized that personalized learning environments rely heavily on student self-regulation" (p. 128). To promote student self-regulation, teach skills such as goal setting and planning, organization, changing routines, regulating emotions, following directions, and calming down. Likewise, technology supports that allow students to work independently and self-regulate their learning are also critical.

Tip 5: Connect Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and PL

UDL principles offer a framework for instructional design that supports PL. The three UDL principles require that learners have multiple representations of content or skills, multiple means of engagement, and multiple modes of expressing new knowledge or skills. Intentional application of UDL principles leads to effective PL (Gordon, 2015).

Tip 6: Use Tech to Support PL

PL requires a blended model of instruction, where students learn (in part) using online tools with some learner control over time, path, pace, or place. Learning management systems (like Moodle, Edmodo, and Blackboard) are key to supporting effective personalization in a blended learning environment through customized delivery of materials and engagement that students can access anytime and anywhere with an internet connection. In general, research indicates that PL-supporting technology has these characteristics:
  • Increases access to learning materials (or information)
  • Allows instant, customizable feedback
  • Enables students to track their own progress and create e-portfolios
  • Collects data on students and offers suggestions for progress
  • Allows student-paced self-assessment and peer-assessment
  • Supports communication and collaboration in real time
  • Promotes student self-regulation
  • Offers learning solutions
These tips offer points of reflection for teachers already applying personalized learning, or a research-based starting point for those considering the benefits of making teaching and learning personal.

Basham., J.D., Hall, T.E., Carter, R.A., & Stahl, W.M. (2016). An operationalized understanding of personalized learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 3(3), 126–136.

Basye, D. (2014). Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning. ISTE 2014. Retrieved May 8, 2016, from https://www.iste.org/explore/articledetail?articleid=124

Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2014). Personalize your learning environment. Retrieved August 5, 2016 from https://www.iste.org/explore/ArticleDetail?articleid=11

Gordon, D. How UDL can get you to personalized learning. Retrieved December 5, 2016, from http://www.cast.org/whats-new/news/2015/udl-personalized-learning.html#.WIgsdX1VYUN

Reigeluth, C.M., et al. (2015). Personalized integrated educational system: Technology functions for the learner-centered paradigm of education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 53(3), 459–496. What is Personalized Learning? iNACOL. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.inacol.org/news/what-is-personalized-learning/

Esther Ntuli is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Educational Studies at Idaho State University. Her research interest focuses on technology use and practice in early childhood instruction, teacher education, assessment, and culturally responsive education.

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