Increasingly, public charter schools and “regular” K-12 public schools are making efforts to personalize learning for their students. There are a variety of different efforts to provide students with more choice – in the courses they select, the delivery model, the location of classes, time of day, and dual enrollment in community college courses. Although it can be very difficult from a logistical perspective, many schools are exploring efforts to allow students to work at their own pace, base course completion on mastering competencies, and even build customized programs of study. Not exactly a “School of One,” but certainly a move in that direction.
Defining personalized learning
There are a number of ways to define personalized learning. I like the definition that emerged from a large-scale research project funding the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the RAND Corporation. Their definition of personalized learning, summarized on pages 2-3, is characterized by three elements:
- "Systems and approaches that accelerate and deepen student learning by tailoring instruction to each student’s individual needs, skills and interests.
- A variety of rich learning experiences that collectively prepare students for success in the college and career of their choice.
- Teachers’ integral role in student learning: designing and managing the learning environment, leading instruction, and providing students with expert guidance and support to help them take increasing ownership of their learning.”
Learner profiles, “seek to give teachers an up-to-date record that provides a deep understanding of each student’s individual strengths, needs, motivations, progress, and goals to help inform his or her learning” (p. 3). In smaller courses, it can be very rewarding and productive to take the time and make the effort to understand students’ prior experience with the course content, their motivations, and their individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests. One could even challenge students to develop individualized learning goals within the parameters of the course syllabus.
With larger courses – all the way up to large lecture classes – we can create a Web survey in the beginning of the course. In this way, we can glean information from the students that would enable you to group students with similar interests in terms of course topics that might inform research or project groups. We might also ask students about prior experience with the content to create discussion sections with students at similar levels. Finally, we could even ask students to take the Myers-Briggs assessment for personality type to form effective small groups for class activities.
The development of a learner profile can be particularly important in working with graduate students. The more that we can get to know them and customize a student’s program of studies, research and writing experiences, the more successful students will be. This kind of flexibility will help them to engage more fully and deeply in their study.
Personal learning paths
With personal learning paths, “students are able to make choices about the content or structure of learning and the school uses a variety of instructional approaches and curriculum materials to meet the learning needs of all students” (p. 3). I talked about this in relation to personalizing the learning experience for students. In this post, I explored options for giving students choices in terms of content, process, and product.
One thing that can be very important with providing personal learning paths for students that I haven’t touched on is the importance of mentoring and advising. We can build in a great deal of variability that may appeal to different students. The advantage in providing individual academic support is that we can help students to make better, more effective choices for their learning. We can also develop understandings that may inform additional personalization opportunities in our courses.
This consultation and support can take a variety of forms. We can offer face-to-face and/or virtual office hours (Google Hangouts work great for this). We can offer small group mentoring sessions for interested students. We can even go so far as to work with students to design individual learning contracts – an approach that is particularly effective with adult learners.
Personalized learning provides a number of benefits for students, including a more metacognitive orientation and developing the habits of mind for independent learning. With some effort to develop learner profiles of our students and to support them in navigating personal learning paths, we can help students maximize their learning experience.
What efforts have you made to personalize learning in your courses?
Please post your comments below.