Personalized learning is a popular topic in the K-12 world. This teaching strategy has been the recipient of major investment in the U.S. by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Priscilla Chan, to name a few. For all the interest, a common question persists without a firm answer: Does personalized learning actually improve student achievement?
It’s important to note that student achievement can be measured in ways other than grades. Things like development of soft skills, digital literacy, engagement and high-quality student-teacher relationships can all result in a more positive learning journey, though grades are perhaps easiest to measure. While the research is still in its early stages, there is some early evidence to suggest that personalized learning does, in fact, have a positive impact on student achievement.
A comprehensive 2015 RAND Corporation study of students from 62 schools across the U.S. found that students at schools that had adopted personalized learning practices saw improvements in both math and reading. The study compared students at these schools with their non-personalized learning school peers and the national norm. These improvements were measurable within two years and continued into the third year of adoption.
Those results are promising, but this study has faced some criticism for its conclusions. Some of the schools studied, for example, won grants to implement personalized learning practices for this study. “Did students gain academically because their schooling was ‘personalized,’ or did they gain because they were in high-functioning schools that received extra resources?” challenged Benjamin Herold in an Education Week article from 2016.
If the research is so far inconclusive, how do we know that personalized learning works? While research on the teaching practice itself is ongoing, many of its benefits have been proven to improve student achievement. In this blog, we’ll look at some of those benefits and see what the research says when it comes to student achievement.
What Is Personalized Learning?
Before we get into the benefits of personalized learning, let’s go over what it is and what it’s not. The term generally refers to a collection of teaching strategies and learning models that are responsive to students’ individual needs and goals. Within that framework, there are many understandings of the meaning of personalized learning.
At D2L, we define personalized learning as a teaching practice that works to support students in ways that best meet their needs. With this model, learning activities, pace, content, spaces and any other learning component are designed with every student’s needs in mind. This doesn’t always mean creating individualized teaching plans for each student, but rather setting up pathways for students to experience learning.
Technology is not necessarily part of the definition of personalized learning (although many researchers include it), but it can certainly help teachers create these environments by freeing up time. Personalized learning is accompanied by many benefits and many of them are associated with improved student achievement.
4 Benefits of Personalized Learning That Improve Student Achievement
Until the research is more fully developed, the benefits of personalized learning are self-evident to many educators: Increased student engagement, motivation to learn and successful assessment outcomes have all been linked to personalized learning. Here are a few examples of the benefits associated with personalized learning and how those benefits affect student achievement.
1. Improving Engagement
Increased student engagement is a great side effect of personalized learning. Giving students some degree of autonomy over their learning allows them to pursue topics that interest them, increasing the likelihood that they’ll remain engaged throughout their learning journey. Using EdTech tools, teachers can understand how engaged students are in learning. This can help educators identify at-risk students so that they can intervene and get learners back on track.
Research shows that student engagement has a positive impact on achievement. In 2019, Gallup released key findings on the relationship between student engagement and improved academic outcomes after surveying more than 110,000 Texas students from grades 5 through 12. Their study found that schools in the top quartile of student engagement had significantly more students exceeding and meeting proficiency requirements than schools in the bottom quartile of engagement.
2. Soft Skill Development
Personalized learning environments do more than encourage academic learning; they also create opportunities for students to develop their soft skills. With options surrounding learning pace and content, students develop independence. By using group work opportunities, students build collaboration skills. Encouraging some self-direction in learning—with the right parameters—ensures that students get better at problem-solving.
Beyond grades, another mark of success in K-12 education is whether students are ready to take the next step after they graduate, by either entering the workforce or continuing their education. A 2014 report by Hanover Research noted that skills like active listening, critical thinking, social perceptiveness and problem solving were among the most in-demand soft skills. Hanover Research also noted that these same skills can play a role in success in higher education. By personalizing the classroom and ensuring that students’ learning includes soft skill development, educators set students up to succeed after they finish their K-12 educational journey.
3. Increasing Digital Literacy
One benefit of using technology to facilitate a personalized learning environment is that it gets children acquainted with technology from an early age. We live in a digital world and yet there is a gap in digital skills. According to a 2021 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Fund, 70% of U.S. jobs required medium-high digital skills; that’s up from 44% in 2002. Higher digital skills also tend to result in higher wages, the same report found. If we measure student achievement by future achievement—that is, whether students went on to be successful after leaving the K-12 system—digital skills can be linked to increased achievement.
Aside from career prospects, there are other advantages of digitally literate students as well. It’s true that many of today’s children grow up surrounded by technology and often understand how to use it intuitively, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to digital literacy. Students need to be taught how to identify and handle issues like cyberbullying and mis- and disinformation.
While not all definitions of personalized learning include mention of technological tools, many do. Teaching students to be digitally literate helps them succeed in life and in future opportunities.
4. Enrichment Opportunities
Personalization goes hand in hand with enrichment. There are opportunities for students who are excelling in a certain area to receive more chances to learn and forge ahead beyond the assigned material. Personalized learning paths ensure that every student can progress at their own pace: Students who are behind can have more time on assignments, while those excelling can take on additional assignments to challenge themselves. The opportunity for enrichment is a natural side effect of personalized learning practices.
Offering students the opportunity for enrichment can help reduce learning loss and improve academic achievement. Technology can make enrichment—which has its own well-documented gaps—more accessible to students in need. Research shows that enrichment opportunities for young students from low-income areas resulted in better learning outcomes. A multi-decade study of 1,589 children found that those who had enrichment opportunities from a young age were more likely to graduate high school and attend college than their peers who did not receive the same opportunities.
It’s true that research regarding personalized learning and student achievement is still underway. But the benefits combined with their science-backed outcomes bode well for the future of this teaching practice.