Special Report
Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning: Same Subject. Same Teacher. 3 Different Student Experiences

By Mark Lieberman — November 04, 2020 4 min read
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Personalizing instruction to the needs of individual students is hard. It takes a lot of planning, a commitment to understanding each student’s academic and social needs, and smart use of ed-tech tools. That is probably why most K-12 students still learn the same material, at relatively the same pace, for the same subjects.

To understand why it is difficult (but possible) to tailor instruction to each student’s individual needs, Education Week asked teacher Tricia Proffitt to outline what her teaching looks like for three students with very different learning needs in her dual-language English classes at Belvidere Central Middle School in Illinois. Proffitt has been developing personalized teaching approaches for years and has continued to do so during the pandemic. Belvidere is currently all-remote.

The bottom line: Three students learning the same subject are having completely different experiences with the same teacher.

Here’s a look at the experiences of three of her students:

#1: English-Language Skills

This middle school student arrived in the United States from South America less than a year ago. She can’t read English and has “very little” English-speaking skill, Proffitt said.

The Plan: Each week, Proffitt creates a separate work plan for Student 1. Proffitt mimics the standards she’s setting for her class that week for an assignment that’s manageable and worthwhile for Student 1. For instance, if the class is reading a short story that week, Proffitt assigns her a separate short story on her level, in her language. The online vocabulary platform Learn That Word allows Proffitt to select specific English skills for her to work on while other students are doing different exercises in the same program. The weekly work plan includes direct hyperlinks to online assignments so the student doesn’t have to dig through files on her Chromebook to find the right links.

The Result: Proffitt had to do a lot of “trial and error” before she landed on methods for communicating clear expectations to the student and ensuring that she understood those expectations. The student was quickly getting overwhelmed when Proffitt sent her daily instructions in the early weeks of the school year.

Now, Proffitt is taking a more personalized approach: “I send her the work plan on Monday. Via Google Translate and emails and chats, we get the kinks worked out to what the expectations are [for the week],” Proffitt said. “She’s working on the skills that she can handle, and she’s doing great.”

#2: Ahead of the Class

One of Proffitt’s students demonstrated early in the new school year that she was operating well above grade level. Her vocabulary and grammar usage stood out, as did her enthusiasm for the class and eagerness to help her classmates.

The Plan: Several of the online programs Proffitt uses in her class allow her to tailor assignments to each student’s progress, and for students to move through the material at their own pace. Upon seeing this student produce high-quality work, Proffitt quickly organized advanced modules and additional assignments for the student to work through while other students were a bit further behind.

Sometimes during a class session, Proffitt tells the class, “If you know what you’re doing and you want to move ahead, you can.” Student 2 “knows that means her,” Proffitt said. She also pulls high-achieving students into separate videoconference sessions for more in-depth discussions.

The Result: Instead of having to wait weeks or months for other students to catch up to her level, the student can engage in meaningful work that challenges her and prepares her for future classes as well. In addition to the more advanced modules, Proffitt set up a website where the student can privately publish her written work, add graphics, and supplement the text with a read-aloud. As of mid-October, the student was working on tasks that most of the rest of the class will catch up with in the next quarter of the school year.

#3: Engagement Challenge

One male student was “very disengaged” during the early weeks of the school year. He participated to an extent, but once Proffitt began assigning work, the student dropped off.

The Plan: Proffitt asked another one of this student’s teachers whether his lack of engagement was consistent across all of his classes. Proffitt’s colleague confirmed that it was. She arranged a meeting with the student’s parents, and quickly discovered that he and his family were overwhelmed by school responsibilities. “He felt that he had already dug such a big hole, so what was the point?” Proffitt said.

She reassured him that the most important thing for him to do was make progress, even at a slower pace than other students in the class. Proffitt picked out a couple of important assignments from the material he had missed, emphasized those as essential for the student to learn before he could move on, and told him to ignore the rest of the practice exercises on the list. Then she sat with him on a video call while they worked through some of the material together.

The Result: About a month and a half into the school year, the student had started to request meetings with Proffitt, participate during live sessions, and even email Proffitt during nonschool days to ask about work he still needed to make up. Proffitt no longer has to send him messages to remind him to stay on task. “He knows how to check for missing work, understands it’s okay to ask for help, and to speak up if he is confused,” Proffitt said.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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Whitney Curtis for Education Week