IO Education

Personalized Learning Produces Positive Outcomes

elementary school teacher helping student in classroom

“The longer students experience personalized learning practices, the greater their growth in achievement,” according to new research by the RAND Corporation. The report, entitled Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning, is an important contribution to understanding whether personalized learning is producing results and how it is being implemented.

With the advent of new technology platforms and digital content, scaling personalized learning is emerging in blended learning settings around the country. It is crucial to understand what benefits it is yielding.

While there is not a single definition of personalized learning, practitioners have identified key elements, including:

deeper student learning tailored to each student’s needs, skills, and interests;
multi-faceted and challenging learning experiences which prepare students for success after high school;
teachers designing instruction, managing the learning environment, and providing students with expert guidance and support; and
students owning their learning.
The achievement outcomes identified in the study are strong and indicative of the great potential for personalized learning to be transformative:

Well more than half of personalized learning students with lower starting achievement levels experienced greater growth rates than peers, particularly in mathematics.
Growth continued to accumulate in schools with three years of implementation.
Schools were developing non-academic skills in students.
Students were more likely to report their math and ELA instruction incorporated complex, student-centered instruction.
Darwin J. Stiffler, Superintendent Yuma School District One and one of the nation’s leading practitioners of personalized learning, observed, “The outcomes we are seeing from schools that are using high-quality personalized learning models are extremely encouraging. In order to achieve their potential, it is critical that personalized learning be implemented strategically, with as strong a focus on pedagogy and addressing students’ specific educational needs as on the technology itself.”

It should be noted that the report also found some mixed results across the schools studied, with only some schools seeing very large gains, while a few saw little or even negative effects. In addition, overall achievement gains were largest for students in lower grade levels.

Importantly, the study looked at implementation practices and teacher perceptions of personalized learning models and strategies. The characteristics of schools implementing quality personalized learning included:

Learner Profiles: Teachers reported using a variety of data and other resources to inform their instructional decisions, including using timely data on student mastery of concepts and lessons, as well as providing and discussing data with students.
Personal Learning Paths: The extent to which students were able to make choices about their learning varied by course, teacher, and age of the student. All schools provided time for individual academic support. Three-quarters of schools used a variety of instructional formats and offered out-of-school learning opportunities.
Flexible Learning Environments: Educators reported that their learning spaces were supportive of personalized learning and that learning time was designed to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.
Relative to a national sample, more teachers surveyed used technology for personalization, incorporated competency-based learning, and agreed their schools’ data system was useful.

Highlighting the need for sustained and quality professional development, teachers in the study noted that the need to develop personalized content and lessons could be an obstacle to effective implementation. Further, the report found that a majority of teachers expressed a need for help translating data into instructional steps, but most teachers reported using a variety of data sources on a regular basis.

Most every educator strives to provide personalized learning and every student and parent wants it. Technology can enable reaching that goal consistently and at scale; the questions are how to do it for all students in classrooms, schools, and districts, and with what models and practices.

Scalable personalized learning models are new, with evolving pedagogies and support. This poses a challenge to researchers seeking to establish best practices with definitive efficacy research. Worthy contributions to the research base come from SRI International, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Christensen Institute, which look at schools and districts implementing personalized and blended learning.

While there is more to learn, we are encouraged by the early findings and with the RAND report’s conclusion that “these findings suggest the impact of personalized learning and its effects on student achievement are promising.”