For our students, learning is a personal journey.
Yet our classrooms often remain ‘one size fits all’, even though we’re teaching 25+ individuals with their own abilities, interests, and dreams.
Personalized learning is how we reach all of them. And with our classrooms becoming steadily more inclusive, now is the time to get familiar with what it is, and what it looks like in your classroom.
You’ll find all that information here, so you can deliver learning experiences just as unique as the students in front of you.
What personalized learning is
Personalized learning is an approach to teaching that tailors learning to every student’s needs.
What does this look like? There’s no single answer because personalized learning models are as varied as the learners they are designed for. They might take the form of:
- a class structure where students are grouped into smaller ‘learning teams’ based on common needs, interests, or ability
- individual learning pathways determined by student–teacher interviews. For example, subject selections and groupings might be determined by a twice-yearly conversation where students reflect on their interests, challenges, and goals.
- having a non-academic ‘home-room’ system where students regularly meet in small groups to discuss individual learning goals and strategies
- student-centered learning activities that give learners a sense of choice in the content, delivery, or pace of the learning
- individual learning pathways designed by students themselves, with students outlining their goals at regular intervals. This might be showcased in the form of a portfolio.
What unites all these approaches is a commitment to serving the individuals in the room, with all their unique differences.
The benefits of personalized learning
Personalized learning focuses on strengths and positive differences
Personalized learning uses a student’s strengths and interests to drive progress, not their deficits.
The struggling writer in your class might have a knack for mathematics. So instead of forcing them through another verbal explanation of sentence structure, you might express the concept as a formula.
Maybe the student who just can’t crack their times tables lives for art class. Why not let them visualize multiplication with a drawing?
When we shift the focus from can’t to can, we build confidence and acknowledge every student has the potential to succeed.
Personalized learning strengthens relationships
Personalized approaches send a powerful message to your students:
‘I care about you.’
You’re signaling you’re willing to listen to them, learn from them, and do what you can to make their learning journey a uniquely special experience.
This trust and care fosters stronger student–teacher relationships — and it’s these that get you through the tough days as well as the good ones.
Personalized learning engages and motivates
When every student’s learning is tailored to their unique strengths and interests, engagement and motivation are never far behind. You’ll see it in buzzing group activities, new hands being raised when you ask a question, and discussions you just can’t shut down even when it’s time for recess.
That’s the power of making learning personal.
5 tips for personalizing the learning in your classroom
You might not be ready to dive into a whole-school approach yet, but you can still take the first steps toward personalized instruction in your classroom. Start small with the following initiatives:
Help your students set personalized goals
If we help our students set personalized goals, personalized learning journeys will follow. Use the SMART framework to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
Key to this process is helping students understand that while success is a common goal, it will look different for everyone. Your front-row pleasers might be vying for top spot on the Mathletics leaderboard, while the student who has always struggled with multiplication vows to finally nail their times tables up to five. It’s the difference in goals that will make the experience personal.
Talk about learning with your students
Discuss learning one-on-one with your students. Check in on the progress of their goals, ask them about their challenges, and what you can do to help them.
Often, it’s only when we ask that we’re clued into the specific things we can do to make learning meaningful for them.
Maybe they’ve been secretly hoping you’ll give a simpler explanation of what goes in a paragraph. Maybe last week’s activity finally gave them the lightbulb moment they’ve been seeking all semester and they can’t wait to do it again.
Whatever you find out, bring this knowledge into play with teaching that is directly responsive to their goals and needs.
Give students a say in their own learning
Make your students’ learning uniquely theirs by giving them choices. It might be a choice of when they learn, what they learn, or how they do it. Doing so allows them to control their personal learning journey.
Putting your students in the driver’s seat might sound terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. For example, leave the option open for students to work solo if they prefer it to a group activity, or let them choose the final product for a project. The artists in the room can shine alongside the writers, while the performers get their time in the spotlight.
Use portfolios to document personalized learning journeys
Portfolios allow students to write the story of their own learning journey, so update them regularly — well before they’re due on your desk for marking at year’s end. They should include:
- work students are proud of
- SMART goals set throughout the year, so students can look back and see how far they’ve come and what’s left to achieve
- reflections: these might be attached to each piece of work so students can identify what they’re proud of, what they would like to improve, and what they learned.
Give students some freedom when it comes to the work they include and the form it takes. It’s OK if they’d rather leave out a so-so assessment, or if they’d prefer an illustrated reflection to a written one. Let them choose and you’ll signal that the learning journey belongs to them.
Tip: use an online portfolio platform such as Weebly. It’s more easily edited, things don’t get lost, and your students won’t have to lug around a weathered lever arch file each day.
Differentiate the learning
By now you’re probably wondering: how do I personalize my teaching for every student?
Differentiation is the answer.
Start by identifying the different groups in your class. Socialites, bookworms, junior athletes who can’t sit still. Think about how you can make their experiences in the classroom different to suit their strengths, needs and interests. You might differentiate:
- instruction: the activities and strategies you use to deliver content can be altered to suit different learners
- content: the learning material itself can be adjusted in terms of difficulty
- environment: the classroom space can be adapted to suit different learners
- student output: let students choose what they want to produce to evidence their learning (see above).
As you get to know your students better, you’ll go from thinking about groups to thinking about individuals. You’ll get to know the learning quirks, strengths, and sore spots of each student — and you’ll be able to use them to your advantage.
This might not happen on Day One, but that’s OK. Take it slow and invest time in getting to know the students in front of you.
Get the full rundown on differentiation here.
Make the most of technology
Technology doesn’t automatically equate to personalized learning, but it does make it simpler. For example, you can:
- assign multiple differentiated activities at once, without having to give five sets of instruction
- let students work at their own pace with gamified learning programs such as Mathletics or Readiwriter Spelling. They advance students automatically along a personalized learning pathway tailored to their ability level.
- give students the option of working outside regular class hours if they need it. And not just solo either. Technology makes it possible for students to collaborate in rich activities no matter where they are.
Why personalization is worth the effort
There’s no getting around it — personalized learning is hard.
But the best parts of teaching always are.
When we make learning personal, we make our students feel valued. We show them they’re more than just another name on the roll.
And that’s something they’ll always remember — long after the last lesson has faded from memory.
Need a hand with personalized learning?
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Effective differentiation makes a huge difference to students’ performance and sense of achievement. But it takes time and energy. That’s why it only tends to
Teaching strategies are as varied as the classrooms they’re used in. There’s no “one size fits all” method for making learning happen. But some teaching
Turn your classroom into a personalized learning environment – International Society for Technology in Education
Personalized Learning: What You Need to Know– Understood
Personalized Learning – Ed Glossary
3 Personalized Learning Myths – Edutopia