Personalized Learning Opinion

Some Promising Findings, and Some Cautions, on Personalization

By Robert Rothman — July 12, 2017 3 min read
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For many educators, particularly readers and writers of this blog, personalizing learning is an important goal. The idea is that, by tailoring instruction to each child’s needs, and taking into account their interests, schools can deepen student engagement and provide all of them with the support they need to learn deeply.

How does it work in practice? A new report from the Rand Corporation provides some cautious backing for the idea. The report followed students from 40 schools that received funding from Next Generation Learning Challenges (a contributor to this blog) to implement personalized learning and compared the schools’ practices and student achievement to those of a national sample of schools, presumably representing typical practice. The study found that the NGLC schools showed modest improvements in student learning and suggested that there are a number of challenges in implementing personalization effectively. These challenges need to be addressed if schools continue to move in this direction.

The report identifies four approaches to personalizing learning:

  • Learner profiles, or “a record of each student’s individual strengths, needs, motivations, progress, and goals based on data from all available sources.”
  • Personal learning paths, or opportunities for “flexibility in the specific path students take through content to enact their educational plan, while still holding them to high expectations. Within parameters set by teachers, students can make choices about the content or structure of learning, and the school offers a variety of instructional approaches and curriculum materials, including support for meaningful learning experiences outside of school.”
  • Competency-based progression, in which “a student advances at his or her own pace and earns course credit (if applicable) as soon as he or she demonstrates an adequate level of competency.”
  • Flexible learning environments, “which imply that the school adapts the use of resources such as staff, space, and time to best support personalization.”

The NGLC schools implemented the practices in varying degrees, the report found. And, interestingly, in some areas the schools did not differ significantly from the national sample, suggesting that personalization might not be such a radical departure from typical practice. For example, students in the two samples reported that they discussed their learning goals and learning progress with their teachers at similar levels. In addition, teachers in both samples reported similar levels of tailoring instruction to student needs, and both groups reported relatively low levels of student choice of topics and materials.

In a positive sign, the report found modest gains in student achievement in NGLC schools, particularly in mathematics. Students in the schools started below national norms and approached them by the end of the school year. And in 16 schools for which two years of data were available, the gains continued for a second year. There was some evidence that schools in which the implementation of personalization practices was greater experienced greater achievement gains, but that claim needs more research to bear out, the Rand study states.

Despite the small positive signs, the report also identified challenges in implementing personalization. Notably, teachers in the NGLC schools said they had limited time to develop personalized lessons. Some noted tensions between offering student choice and the need to address standards. And competency-based grading systems were difficult to explain to parents and other stakeholders, teachers said.

These challenges are not insurmountable, and the report offers some recommendations to state and district policy makers to support personalization. One finding rings out: the need to support teachers. Teachers need time, resources, and professional learning to make personalization work. The Rand report makes clear that the idea shows promise. That promise can only be realized with highly capable teachers.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.