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The Complete Guide to Personalized Learning 

  • 20 Min Read

Practitioners of personalized learning understand that even the most meticulously crafted lesson plans won’t perfectly meet the needs of every learner. To reach each student, educational content needs to reflect that students will come to the material with various learning experiences, backgrounds and abilities. It needs to meet learners where they are and support them in achieving their learning goals.

Personalization doesn’t mean designing a unique learning plan for each student. Instead, it’s about creating optionality, allowing learners and educators to make strategic choices to better support an individual’s learning journey.

And some tools can help with certain aspects of personalized learning. Just as technology lets people access and enjoy custom playlists, it can also empower teachers with the tools they need to create personalized learning experiences for learners of all ages—from K-12 students to higher ed learners to adults seeking personal or professional development opportunities.

What Is Personalized Learning?

A wide range of teaching tactics might be considered personalized learning. Still, at the most basic level, personalized learning is a teaching practice that allows educators to support students’ unique needs and abilities with customized learning pathways.

Rather than providing each student with the same assignments, assessments and milestones, teachers can use personalized learning to offer materials suited to students’ unique backgrounds, abilities and preferred learning modalities. Though personalized learning adapts to the needs of individual learners, it doesn’t require teachers to develop individualized plans for each student. Instead, it offers students key opportunities for autonomy and choice, empowering them to take control of their learning so they stay motivated and engaged.

Teachers can spend less time coordinating and more time doing what they do best— supporting their students as they learn and grow.

Personalized learning can involve anything from self-paced online coursework to flexible classroom seating arrangements. The most powerful personalized learning materials can be customized to students’ needs, most often as part of a learning management system (LMS). With an LMS, teachers can:

  • develop remedial materials and enrichment activities
  • track student progress
  • release content according to student needs
  • offer accommodations when necessary

Most importantly, an LMS is a critical tool for ensuring personalized learning is scalable and successful. It used to require a substantial investment of time to organize each student. Now it’s faster and more efficient with the help of an LMS. Teachers can spend less time coordinating and more time doing what they do best—supporting their students as they learn and grow.

The History of Personalized Learning

Personalized learning isn’t new, though its definition has evolved over time. Educators have always been conscious of learners’ varying needs and have adapted lessons to serve their students best. Some early personalized learning practitioners aimed to automate the process as much as possible, focusing on analyzing metrics and optimizing each individual’s path to help them master content. Others saw personalized learning as an opportunity to prioritize research and discovery by letting students’ interests and abilities guide their own educational path.

Personalized learning is a teaching practice that allows educators to support students’ unique needs and abilities with customized learning pathways.

The modern concept of personalized learning has evolved from those humble beginnings, influenced by technological developments and rising opposition to one-size-fits-all learning. Today, personalized learning most often refers to a practice in which teachers use software to create flexible learning pathways that account for each student’s unique needs, aptitudes and interests. With the help of technology, students can move at their own pace through material and teachers can repurpose, reuse and adapt assignments as necessary. Teachers can understand where each student’s strengths and weaknesses lie and spend their time where it counts, supporting those who are struggling and offering new challenges to those who are excelling.

Technology has opened up new doors for personalized learning, making it more accessible, flexible, and ultimately, more successful. These developments have been made possible by funding from various sources, including venture capitalists, nonprofits and even the federal government. Now, startups and established companies are competing to secure a foothold in the new market for personalized learning tools, offering schools and companies the ability to provide individualized learning pathways for everything from classroom learning to employee training.

Personalized Learning: Terms to Know

Personalized learning can apply to a broad range of practices, so there are many relevant terms and concepts. These include:

Autonomy

Adaptive Learning

Blended Learning

Competency-Based Learning

Differentiated Learning

Individualized Learning

Learner-Centered Learning

Learning Management System (LMS)

Mastery-Based Learning

Micro-Credentials

Microlearning

Project-Based Learning

Self-Directed Learning

Self-Paced Learning

Student-Centered Learning

Student-Directed Learning


Autonomy

The ability to govern oneself. In education, autonomy allows learners to make decisions and take control of their education.

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Adaptive Learning

Machine learning and algorithms are used to adjust lessons and serve up resources that address the unique needs of an individual learner. With adaptive learning, students remain engaged because they are challenged at the appropriate level, rather than struggling with material that is too difficult or growing disengaged with lessons that are too easy.

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Blended Learning

This is an approach that pairs the real-world classroom with online and virtual components, giving students opportunities for in-person interaction and face-to-face instruction and letting them benefit from the ease, flexibility, and accessibility of technology. The result is a better learning experience and more adaptable, digitally savvy learners.

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Competency-Based Learning

In competency-based learning, students move forward in the material only when they have mastered certain concepts or skills. The focus is not on grades or a centralized curriculum but on students’ individual abilities.

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Differentiated Learning

This strategy involves that adapting teaching processes, products and content to meet students’ unique learning needs.

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Individualized Learning

This methodology provides an integrated approach to learning that sets a learner up for success in school and beyond by helping highlight the practical value of new skills and information.

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Learner-Centered Learning

This methodology provides an integrated approach to learning that sets a learner up for success in school and beyond by helping highlight the practical value of new skills and information.

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Learning Management System (LMS)

An LMS is software that helps schools and organizations set up, store and deliver learning content and courses using a digital platform. It allows educators to create content and design learning pathways to track student progress and automate notifications and accommodations.

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Mastery-Based Learning

This is another term for competency-based learning.

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Micro-Credentials

Often used in a professional context, micro-credentials represent an individual’s proficiency in a particular skill set. These credentials can be stacked, with one person accumulating a collection of micro-credentials on their way to a more extensive certification or degree. Though they can help companies to upskill or rekill employees, micro-credentials don’t have to be (and often aren’t) specific to one company or job. They’re an excellent way for individuals to expand their skill sets and progress in their careers.

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Microlearning

Microlearning is an educational strategy that delivers focused information in short, digestible bites. When broken down, the material is less overwhelming and more accessible for learners, particularly in a professional context where it may be challenging to fit learning into a busy workday.

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Project-Based Learning

This is a teaching method in which students participate in active learning by completing projects and engaging with real-world challenges and problems. Project-based learning provides an opportunity to develop soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving while acquiring subject-specific knowledge.

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Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning gives learners the autonomy to take control of their learning, allowing them to decide what, when, and how they learn while also evaluating their progress.

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Self-Paced Learning

Self-paced learning is an educational strategy in which students control when and how quickly they complete lessons and assignments.

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Student-Centered Learning

This is another term for learner-centered learning, though it’s most often applied to school-aged learners.

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Student-Directed Learning

Like self-directed learning, student-directed learning shifts the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

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Examples of Personalized Learning

Educators can incorporate elements of personalized learning into everything from curricular structure to a physical classroom setup. It all depends on the circumstances of a particular program, a class’s goals and the needs of its students, but personalized learning might involve:


Individual Goal-Setting: Learners spend a lot of time working towards milestones dictated by others—state standards for grades K-12, industry criteria for professional certifications, or employer benchmarks for training and onboarding—but they’ll be most motivated when working toward an important personal goal. Even within larger frameworks, educators can find opportunities for learners to set individual goals that keep them engaged with the material.

Self Assessments: However facilitated, self-assessments provide students with dedicated time to reflect on their learning progress. They can help learners foster self-awareness, better understand their learning style and identify gaps in their knowledge. Self-assessments can increase students’ autonomy and boost their intrinsic motivation when used correctly.

Flexible Schedules: Some people do their best analytical work in the morning, while others are more creative before noon. Students may be more successful if they choose when to perform certain kinds of learning tasks. Some schools have found ways to give students control over their schedules—or at least blocks of their time—so they can arrange their day to optimize their ability to learn.

Tailored Pacing: Cadence can significantly impact a student’s learning experience. When students can cover material at their own pace, they can power through concepts that come easily to them, reducing the likelihood that they’ll grow bored or lose interest. Conversely, they can take their time on any challenging areas, ensuring they can fully grasp the material before moving on. To help adjust to their students’ learning, teachers may also choose to adjust deadlines for specific assignments or change the time limit on a quiz or assessment.


Custom Learning Paths: With the help of digital tools, teachers can provide learners the opportunity to move through certain aspects of the material in the order of their choosing, allowing learners to follow their interests.

Classroom Modifications: Teachers in physical classrooms can adjust things like seating and layout to create an environment that supports a broader range of students and learning styles. By offering multiple options and organizing supplies in ways that are easily accessible to students, educators can help foster students’ independence while setting them up for learning success.

Digital tools make it possible to implement almost all of these modifications. An LMS can help educators offer students more pathways for learning while eliminating some of the logistical work of supporting multiple learning plans and tracking each student’s progress. Great software can also help with evaluations, scheduling, and accommodations. The right technology will help make personalized learning a success, and free up teachers’ time for high-value interactions with their students, like a conversation about a student’s self-assessment or time spent reinforcing those concepts that a student finds most challenging.

What Are the Benefits of Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning makes learning more rewarding for everyone—learners, educators and communities alike—in a number of ways.

  • It empowers learners to take a proactive role in their education. They can prioritize the content and courses that they feel are the most relevant to their personal goals.
  • It makes students feel more supported, engaged and motivated, meaning they’re more likely to achieve their learning goals.
  • It enables students to access content when they need it and move through it at their own pace. If the topic is one a learner already knows well, they can work through it quickly and confidently. If the material is new or complex, they can take more time to understand and reflect on it.
  • It allows educators to tailor their teaching to reflect individual needs. Instructors can tailor learning experiences by setting up individualized paths, rules and notifications.

 

What Are the Challenges of Personalized Learning?

Without adequate technology or support, implementing personalized learning can come with some hurdles:

  • Insufficient tooling. While the right tools help educators set up personalized learning experiences, the wrong ones can get in the way or prevent teachers from creating them altogether.
  • Lack of buy-in. Personalized learning can be challenging to initiate in a classroom setting without the support of the educational institution.
  • Inconsistent implementation. When personalized learning isn’t consistent or comprehensive, it can be frustrating for educators and learners.

 

How Effective Is Personalized Learning?

Intuitively, it makes sense that personalized learning would benefit students. Autonomy fosters motivation and engagement, while other aspects of personalization ensure that students interact with material in a way that considers their needs and abilities.

Anecdotal evidence points to the positive impact of personalized learning, with students praising personalized programs like Gwinnett Online Campus for helping them remain challenged rather than frustrated and for supporting the needs of neurodivergent learners.

In the Gwinnett program, the pass rate across all personalized learning courses was 90.8%, and students who participated in reteaching notched a 20-point gain in mastery, on average.

Broader research is still emerging, but early results are promising. The RAND Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that students gained three percentile math points when schools incorporated personalized learning. These gains occurred in students of all levels, affecting both high and low performers. However, positive results weren’t observed in all schools, which demonstrates that the success of personalized learning is likely context-dependent. Results were positive in reading as well, though not statistically significant. The study also showed that students continued to make gains after the second year of personalized learning, indicating that it may take time and practice for students and educators to realize the full potential of personalized learning.

teacher showing two students a lesson on a tablet

Personalized Learning in the K-12 Classroom

In a K-12 environment, everything from the classroom’s physical design to the school’s daily schedule provides an opportunity to incorporate personalized learning. Students are more likely to remain engaged and master critical concepts when their needs are taken into account and allowed to take control of their educational journeys.

In a physical classroom, personalized learning might start with offering students flexible seating options or organizing the classroom so that supplies and resources are easily accessible when needed. Teachers can encourage students to set their own learning goals and reflect on their progress at regular checkpoints. This process may be a straightforward conversation about interests and frustrations for a kindergartener. At the same time, for a high schooler, it might be a more nuanced discussion of the student’s strengths and weaknesses, with a plan for progressing towards mastery. Either way, the basic principles remain the same—when students are involved in their educational journey and participate in setting goals, they’ll be more motivated to succeed.

Technology makes it easier for teachers in in-person and virtual classes to tailor their teaching to their students. Teachers can leverage flexible content, pulling in lessons that reinforce fundamentals or stretch students’ horizons, depending on an individual student’s needs. They can allow students to take extra time when they need to or move quickly through material that comes easily to them. Teachers may also find it helpful to offer various assessment options so that students can draw on their natural inclinations—choosing between, for example, a written essay or a multimedia project—while demonstrating mastery of the material.

In a digital classroom, it’s possible to implement many of these strategies but prioritize communication first. Students and teachers will not have the organic opportunities to check in that they might have in a physical classroom, so it’s essential to set aside dedicated time for a teacher to chat with each student and discuss any challenges they’re facing.

Though personalized learning isn’t plug-and-play, there are many ways technology makes it easy for educators and students alike. Learning management systems include set-and-run features that allow teachers to design lessons and create conditions tailored to their students. With logistical tasks handed over to technology, teachers have more time to use their expertise and do their best to support their students’ learning.

student working on a laptop while wearing headphones

Personalized Learning in Higher Education

Post-secondary school students have come of age with information at their fingertips—anything they want to know is accessible anytime. With the right technology, it’s possible for learning to feel equally adaptable. A learning management system, for example, allows students to move through material at their own pace, wherever and wherever makes sense for them.

Some systems even create digital opportunities for collaboration and interaction. Students can receive real-time feedback on their work, ensuring that teachers reach them when they’re most engaged. Technology can also gamify the learning experience, making it more fun for students to measure and view progress towards learning goals. Virtual awards and badges can help students share and celebrate achievements, offering additional opportunities for students to interact with their peers.

Personalized learning can also help colleges and universities meet the diverse needs of their students. Mobile-based educational experiences are well-suited to fit students’ busy schedules, allowing them to review course materials on their commute or during breaks at work. Digital platforms can notify professors when someone is falling behind, making it easier to identify when a student may need additional support.

Overall, technology makes it possible to adapt to students’ needs. With the right tools, institutions of higher education can keep learning at the forefront of students’ increasingly busy lives.

business woman working on a desktop computer

Personalized Learning in Continuing Education and Training

Learning has to fit in between other priorities, from personal obligations to professional commitments. Personalized learning makes it possible to accommodate those needs, giving association members and learners the ability to access training on their own time. And digital tools make it possible to reach those learners where they are.

When implementing personalized learning, training providers should get to know their typical learners to ensure their content and curriculum meet their needs. It’s essential to understand who will be learning, what they need to know and why the information matters to them. This information will guide content creation, ensuring that course materials are relevant to learners and their goals.

Educators should also give special care to the order of the lessons. It may make sense for everyone to receive information in the same order in some cases. In other cases, it may be more engaging to allow learners to choose their path through the material. An assessment can also help identify knowledge gaps so that learners can focus on content specific to those areas, rather than wasting valuable time covering material they’re already familiar with.

two people having a meeting

Personalized Learning for Corporate and Workplace Learning

High-performing organizations understand the value of hiring talent with various backgrounds and experiences. Still, when every employee has a different resume, it’s unreasonable to expect them to bring the same skills and knowledge. Personalized learning can help new hires get up to speed while giving seasoned employees opportunities to broaden their skill sets or continue growing in their areas of expertise.

Educational opportunities can also be a critical way to improve employee engagement, boost productivity and improve retention. When companies invest in learning and empowering their team members to achieve their professional goals, they help increase employee motivation and job satisfaction.

Personalized learning in the workplace often involves a few key elements:

illustration with 3 figures, one of whom is standing farther ahead
Mentorship: A professional mentor can help employees improve their self-awareness, understand their strengths and weaknesses and set and achieve goals. Though the responsibilities of a supervisor and mentor may overlap, it’s useful for the mentor to be someone other than a supervisor. A supervisor must act on behalf of the company, while a mentor should always prioritize their mentee.
illustration with 2 speech bubbles
Feedback: Frequent, constructive feedback can help employees address knowledge gaps and course-correct as they work. Helpful feedback can come from anywhere—a mentor, a supervisor, or even a peer—provided the organization’s culture is one of safety and transparency. If employees are left to operate for too long without feedback, bad practices can become entrenched, skills gaps can widen and minor issues can develop into significant problems. A learning management system can help make it easier to solicit, aggregate, and deliver feedback.
illustration of a person jumping over a hurdle
Experiential Exercises: It’s not always possible for companies to facilitate hands-on learning, as allowing employees to practice on the job can have real-world implications for their business. Still, many people learn by doing, and organizations that practice personalized learning find ways to use experiential exercises so employees can reinforce essential skills. For example, a sales team might run mock sales calls to help new team members learn to handle certain kinds of conversations.
illustration of a calendar with a star at the top
Learning Off the Clock: Professional networking groups and conferences offer employees valuable opportunities to learn from others in their field. Yet, in addition to providing employees the funding and time necessary to take advantage of those more traditional learning experiences, employers may also wish to support employees in their hobbies, community efforts and volunteer commitments. Though the business value of these activities is less immediately apparent, they are still educational, giving employees the chance to practice critical leadership skills in other contexts.
illustration of a play button
Video Learning: Digital learning platforms make it possible to offer a range of assessments. With video learning, employers can ask learners to deliver a presentation, or to answer questions asynchronously. Instructors can even create a virtual classroom for live discussion or online office hours, helping ensure that learners are able to ask questions and engage with the material in multiple ways.
illustration of an award ribbon
Badges and Awards: More than just a little bit of digital swag, badges indicate that a learner has reached a specific learning benchmark or gained a particular skill. They contain key metadata about the learner, the criteria for earning the badge, and the organization that issued it, so they can travel with the learner throughout their professional journey.

Personalized learning in the workplace is critical to ensure that all employees have the skills to excel at their jobs. But it isn’t purely about upskilling. When employees have opportunities to learn and grow, they’ll also be more engaged and more satisfied in their roles.

What Is the Future of Personalized Learning?

Recently, the most significant trends in personalized learning have resulted from advancements in digital technology and machine learning. We predict that in years to come, the following trends with impact personalized learning:

A renegotiation of the influence of learner and instructor.

Traditional educational strategies center the teacher, while personalized learning increases the learner’s control. Still, there will always be some push and pull between the plans of the teacher and the needs/desires of the learners. As personalized learning continues to evolve, this tension will need attention—teachers cannot be too prescriptive or shut down students’ curiosity; if students have complete control, they may face decision paralysis. For personalized learning to succeed, each participant will need to have the right amount of agency at the right time.

The role of technology.

Technology is already essential to the scalability and success of personalized learning, but advances in technology will continue to make it easier to design personalized learning programs that can help each student succeed. Thus far, technology has made personalized learning easier and more effective, allowing teachers to design programs that quickly adapt to learners’ needs. As AI predictions and language models grow more powerful, they’ll open up even more possibilities for personalized learning.

The speed of change.

The needs of learners, institutions and employers will continue to change quickly. Personalized learning will need to keep up, whether through advancements in the underlying technology or updates to the content itself.

Key Takeaway

Personalized learning has applications across a wide range of educational situations, from a kindergarten classroom to a virtual employee training program. No matter the context, the basic principle remains the same—learners are individuals with their own unique needs. When teachers adapt to those needs, they empower students to achieve their learning goals.

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