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The Research Behind Personalized Learning

The Research Behind Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning  |  Teachers  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

At Education Elements, we define personalized learning as an instructional approach that empowers students to build ownership of their learning. And, as students transitioned back into schools in the wake of remote and hybrid learning, our district partners across the country emphasize that this student-centered approach to teaching has never been more needed. With buzzwords floating around like “learning loss,” we are at risk of losing the full story of how educators have always endeavored to meet students where they are. At this moment, personalized learning is emerging as a critical process that equips educators with the practices to support students in getting the instruction they need, when they need it.

When leading instructional design and implementation with our district partners to shift practices and skills at scale to personalize learning, we see time and again how quickly educators become invested in these shifts. Educators want their classrooms to prepare their students for a future that is dynamic and constantly evolving. One enduring question that educators ask us is, “What’s the research that supports personalizing learning?” 

The Core Four: A Research-Informed Framework

In supporting schools and districts to personalize learning for students, we ground our methodology in the Core Four. This is our research-informed framework for understanding the practices, mindsets, knowledge, and priorities that equip educators to shift away from teacher-directed lessons towards experiences that build every student’s ownership of their learning. Educators personalize learning by targeting instruction, fostering collaboration and creativity, facilitating reflection and goal-setting, and designing flexible learning experiences. We believe that educators need to possess a foundational understanding of social emotional learning and culturally responsive instruction to offer quality personalized learning experiences. 

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Here are four ways our approach to personalized learning is backed by research and ultimately brings together a powerful blend of purpose, precision, and passion in classrooms:

Targeted Instruction

Targeted instruction enables more efficient and effective learning, guided by a teacher. In personalized learning classrooms, students regularly work with their teacher in small groups. Planned and impromptu 1:1 interactions between students and teachers are also frequent. These small group and 1:1 interactions allow teachers more opportunities to observe students' learning and provide higher quality, targeted feedback–which has a proven impact on students' cognitive development and learning (Wisniewski, Zierer, and Hattie, 2019). Additionally, through 1:1 and small group interactions, teachers are better positioned to assess and scaffold learning in the moment. Scaffolding enables students to be in their Zone of Proximal Development for more time–learning at their optimal level versus trying to learn concepts they already know or that are beyond their current readiness level (McLeod, 2019).

Collaboration and Creativity

Collaboration and creativity promotes deeper peer relationships, greater achievement. In classrooms implementing personalized learning, you will find students working with one another, sharing ideas, providing feedback, and co-creating solutions. This instructional strategy–cooperative learning with peers–is a fundamental aspect of personalized learning. Research shows that students who regularly engage in small group, cooperative learning activities with peers are more likely to build stronger relationships with classmates, creating a higher degree of social belonging, reducing stress and increasing academic outcomes (Roseth and Ryan, 2020).

Flexible Path and Pace

Flexible path and pace fosters engagement with students’ competence and control. Research shows us that students’ effort in academic work will be reduced if they believe they lack the capacity to succeed or do not have control over their outcomes (National Research Council, 2004). In personalized learning classrooms, students routinely exercise their agency to determine both the pathway and pace of their learning. By giving students structured, meaningful, and varied choices on how they progress towards mastery, it deepens their effort and engagement. These choices empower students to  determine their appropriate challenge. When students are equipped in personalized learning classrooms to honor their unique needs, preferences, and talents, then they are more likely to have positive perceptions about their competence and control, which increases the interest and relevancy of their learning. 

Reflection and Goal Setting

Reflection and goal setting increases self-determination and intrinsic motivation. In personalized learning classrooms, students set and monitor progress toward goals and select topics, content and materials that feel most relevant or interesting. Both of these approaches–goal-setting and making decisions about learning–provide students with the opportunity to make choices in the classroom. Providing students with opportunities to make choices and experience the outcomes of those choices increases self-determination and intrinsic motivation (Reeve, Nix, and Ham, 2003). This “metacognitive” approach to instruction is a foundational tenet of how people learn (Bransford et al, 1999). 

If you need a thought partner as you navigate how to implement personalized learning as a research-driven approach in your school or district, our consultants are here to help. 

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