Personalized Learning

Why Personalized Learning Works in Some Schools, But Not in Others. What Test Scores Say

By Alyson Klein — October 29, 2021 6 min read
Image shows two children ages 5 to 7 years old and a teacher, an African-American woman, holding a digital tablet up, showing it to the girl sitting next to her. They are all wearing masks, back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
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Personalizing learning to students individual academic strengths and weaknesses and personal interests was hard to do during the pandemic, especially in remote or hybrid learning environments. Social distancing in physical classrooms added to the difficulties.

But now that most students are back in classrooms, schools running personalized learning programs that struggled during the pandemic are trying to get them back on track, and other schools are in the beginning stages of putting personalized learning strategies in place.

No matter what stage they are at in putting such programs in place, one big worry is how such efforts will affect test scores. The reality is that changing up instruction and integrating more digital tools into learning could jeopardize everything from teachers’ relationships with their students to the school’s state standardized test scores.

So what does personalized learning look like in schools that perform well on standardized tests versus those that perform poorly? What factors are at play that educators should know about?

To answer those and other questions about personalized learning, Education Week spoke to Dabae Lee, an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who studies project-based learning, personalized learning, and online learning. Lee is an author of a recent study, “Differences in Personalized Learning Practice and Technology Use in High- and Low-Performing Learner-Centered Schools in the United States.”

Here’s what she had to say:

You were the lead author on a recent study showing that teachers in high-performing schools tend to implement personalized learning strategies more effectively than those who work in lower-performing schools. Can you tell us briefly how you conducted that study and what your number one takeaway was?

We wanted to see how personalized learning was practiced in K-12 schools that had already transformed their practice from teacher-centered to learner-centered. So, we identified those “learner-centered” schools in the U.S. and asked the teachers various questions about what they did to create personalized learning experiences for students and how they used technology to support them. Then, we wondered if there were differences between high- and low- performing schools in terms of practice and technology use. So, we gathered the students’ data from state standardized tests and compared the teachers’ practices and technology use between high- and low-performing schools.

Our number one takeaway was that personalized learning, when implemented thoroughly, was effective for increasing academic achievement measured by standardized tests. One of the greatest fears of teachers and administrators is seeing a drop in their test scores. This makes them reluctant to transform their traditional practice to personalized learning. We hope this finding will assure them that personalized learning is effective if implemented well.

You found that teachers in high-performing schools were more likely to include students’ own career goals and interests in developing personalized learning plans. Why do you see that strategy as effective, and why might higher-performing schools be in a better position to implement it?

Motivation is powerful in learning. Every student has unique interests. Tailoring learning to individual students’ career goals and interests makes learning personally relevant and keeps students engaged in their learning processes. We found evidence that tailoring learning to their unique interests helped motivate the students to learn more in those schools. So, I would not say higher-performing schools were in a better position to use students’ interests.

Teachers in higher performing schools were more likely to say they formed close relationships with their students. Why do you think that is and how might it have contributed to student success?

Yes, we found that teachers in high-performing schools formed close relationships with more students than those in low-performing schools. Other findings of the study help answer why that was the case. Teachers in high-performing schools considered more characteristics of students in developing personalized learning plans, stayed more years with the same students, and assessed more non-academic competencies such as social skills and work ethic, than those in low-performing schools. In other words, they had more opportunities to interact with each student and get to know each. These opportunities allowed them to form closer relationships with their students.

There are several ways that close relationships between teachers and students improve student success. When teachers know more about each student, they know what works for the student. So, they can create more effective learning experiences for the student. Also, students tend to feel safe and cared for when they think that their teachers know them well. They can more easily share their difficulties, struggles, and failures. A safe and caring environment encourages them to be adventurous and proactive when it comes to learning instead of being afraid of failure.

Teachers in high-performing schools were more likely to use technology collaboratively than those in lower-performing schools. Was that a key factor in the success of personalized learning?

Yes, high-performing schools had more powerful technology systems that integrated more functions that support learning than did low-performing schools. Technology alone is not a key factor in the success of personalized learning, but it is an essential enabler, especially for personalized learning in a classroom with a large number of students. Using powerful technology systems will not guarantee the success of personalized learning. However, it is a must-have tool that helps teachers implement personalized learning.

Your study touches on the role that standardized testing may play in keeping low-performing schools from going as deeply into personalized learning as they would like. Can you talk about the reasons for that?

Implementing personalized learning takes a paradigm shift in beliefs about teaching and learning and a dramatic change in instructional practice. The punitive nature of the [federal education law] No Child Left Behind left educators fearful about trying new teaching methods. While the law has been replaced by the less punitive Every Student Succeeds Act, some still feel pressure to get good test scores. This prevents many educators from taking risks to innovate their practice.

As the study findings suggest, personalized learning should be implemented faithfully to be effective. But it takes a great deal of time and effort to reach that level of implementation fidelity. Therefore, pushing educators to adopt personalized learning while maintaining the negative consequences of a temporary drop in test scores may lead them to adopt it at the very surface level, which will not result in an increase in academic outcomes.

What lessons from your study can we apply to the COVID-era of schooling in which learning virtually is more common than before the pandemic?

Learning virtually without physical interactions can be challenging, especially for younger learners. On the other hand, online learning can be designed in a way to bring multiple benefits that are difficult to realize in face-to-face learning. Actually, online learning environments can be more flexible environments for implementing personalized learning than traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Students can take as much time as they need to master content without being restricted by class time. Learning can take place anywhere, allowing students to engage in real-world projects. Student data can be recorded and processed instantly to inform teachers. Our study findings shed light on how we can tap into the distinctive benefits of online learning environments.

Also, during COVID some students, especially those who are disadvantaged, have learned a lot less than they otherwise would have. Therefore, when COVID is over, different students are going to have different gaps in their learning, and the only way to effectively fill those gaps is to personalize student learning. Our study sheds some light on how to do that.

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Saras Chung, center, her daughter Karis, 14, left, and her son Jaron, 12, walk up to Saras's workplace office in St. Louis. Karis and Jaron, who are attending school remotely full-time, are participating in personalized learning programs.
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Whitney Curtis for Education Week