Defining Personalized Learning

What is Personalized Learning?

More than just an ed-tech buzzword, “personalized learning” refers to a set of methodologies and approaches to learning in which instruction is not one-size-fits-all, but is adapted specifically to the needs, abilities, and interests of individual learners.
Katrina Stevens, Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, helps us compare working definitions of personalized learning from multiple sources, provides an overview of the five key components involved in the personalized learning process, and discusses the benefits of personalized learning in her article for Medium titled, Personalizing the Learning Experience: Insights from Future Ready Schools.”

Due to oversimplification and variations in definition, genuine understanding of personalized learning (as well as successful implementation) have been limited. Several other trending ed-tech topics, like blended learning, differentiated learning, adaptive learning, individualized learning, and competency-based learning have been confused with personalized learning and, though they may have some common threads, are quite decidedly not the same thing.

What’s In a Name?

It’s easy to understand why other modern approaches to instruction are sometimes confused with personalized learning, as they all share one or more characteristics. Quoted from the above-referenced article, here are a few descriptions:
Adaptive learning: technology used to assign human or digital resources to learners based on their unique needs
Individualized learning: the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students
Differentiated learning: the approach to learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students
Competency-based learning: learners advance through a learning pathway based on their ability to demonstrate competency, including the application and creation of knowledge along with skills and dispositions
But we know that textbook definitions and reference-like descriptions don’t always signify something’s impact and importance. Stevens writes, “…when done well, personalized learning has the potential to radically transform how we teach and learn and how we create more equitable opportunities for students.” It’s hard to fit all that into a bite-sized label.

Key Components of the Personalized Learning Framework

Furthermore, even with an agreed-upon definition, personalized learning means different things to different schools. Whether at the district or teacher level, attempting to personalize learning depends greatly on a number of factors, from the resources available to the curriculum and culture of a school. In order to guide schools through the process of transforming to a truly personalized instructional model, the author cites this formal definition of personalized learning from the U.S. Department of Education:

Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are made available that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated.

And whether it’s this definition you prefer or any of the numerous others Stevens shares from sources such as the District Reform Support Network, iNACOL, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (among others), five key tenets emerge:

1. The pace of learning is adjusted

2. Learning objectives, approaches, content, and tools are tailored and optimized for each learner

3. Learning is driven by learner interests

4. Learners are given choice in what, how, when, and where they learn

5. Learning is often supported by technology

From Paper to Practice: The Evolving Process of Personalized Learning

Having a definition and a general understanding of personalized learning is just the first step in achieving it. Putting a personalized plan into action involves process, and teachers must combine forces with students, systems and resources to make it happen. In the author’s evaluation of widespread personalized learning best practices, this 5-step process, quoted from Stevens’ article, has emerged:
1. All learners are engaged in a tailored learning experience. This could include teacher-led whole-class or small-group activities, learners working in groups or individually, and learners engaged in digital learning activities.
2. Each learner’s performance is measured. The type of learning experience determines the types of data that can be collected. For example, as learners participate in a small-group activity, the teacher might ask them targeted, open-ended, probing questions that will help in tailoring upcoming components of the lesson. When technology is used, performance can be measured continuously in real time.
3. Each learner’s performance data is interpreted against established criteria. Criteria could include learning objectives and formal standards for college and career readiness. It could also include measures of other success skills like problem solving and critical thinking.
4. Learning experiences are personalized for each learner based on data. A learning experience can be personalized by teachers or the technology-based personalized learning system or some combination of the two. In some approaches, learners can also make their own adaptations based on the data.
5. Each learner’s performance is measured again. Once a learning experience has been personalized, the teacher and a technology-based system measures performance again and the cycle repeats. Data collected is used by the teacher, and sometimes the learner, to improve the experience for the learner as well as to improve the technology-based system designed to support the personalized learning.
These five steps in the personalized learning cycle support each of the 5 tenets earlier discussed which help to broadly define personalized learning, but it is important to stress that technology, while not essential to each of these steps, makes the scaling, consistency, and accuracy of each of these activities both possible and more sustainable.

And Why?

When something as big as personalized learning catches on, there’s usually a pretty good set of reasons behind why educators and schools find them worthwhile to support. Stevens’ piece gives us a list:
Mastery: with learning moving at each individual’s pace, there is more time to master a concept than if the material moves quickly from unit to unit at the same time for everyone.
Increased engagement and achievement: learners find more meaning and relevance when their interests and choices influence the subject matter. Giving each student an individualized learning path helps motivate them and makes the content more relatable.
Ownership: having voice and choice helps students realize that their education is something they can direct and that their progress is not captive or limited. Students given a say in their educational path learn to develop their own unique methods for achieving goals.
Frequency and timeliness of feedback: if a school has the resources to support learning with technology, educators have the power to more frequently assess understanding and progress through formative assessments, quizzes, and the ability to provide feedback quickly and in real-time. This aids learners in evaluating their own opportunities for improvement.
Ability to identify and close learning gaps: like anything else, when the right tools are available, efficiency and efficacy are increased. Learners and teachers given the right support are able to more quickly identify and conquer educational obstacles.
Targeted attention at all learner levels: through the use of technology, teachers are able to customize instruction effectively for each of their students, which subsequently facilitates individualized attention and planning for those who are more rapidly or slowly advancing through the material.
Student-teacher relationships and a sense of belonging: teachers who find it easy to manage the available resources or create personalized material are able to connect more deeply with each student and speak specifically to each learner’s personal challenges. Seeing a teacher as an advocate and ally can help students feel more comfortable and confident in their respective learning environments.
Increased equity: personalized learning gives each learner the tools and opportunities needed to succeed by allowing them to learn in a way that makes the most sense to them. This means that personalized learning transcends culture, geography, background, and ability.

Wrapping Up

To close out her article, Stevens urges the field of education and those responsible for implementing personalized learning initiatives to “measure and optimize these impacts side-by-side with learning outcomes,” in a way that reflects the aspirations and values of educators everywhere.
For more on technology-supported personalized learning, check out the EdWeek article by Benjamin Herold titled, Technology in Education: An Overview,” or the Google blog post How District 99 supports students and teachers through 1:1 learning.

Personalizing the Learning Experience: Insights from Future Ready Schools,” posted on, author Katrina Stevens