A general core curriculum and instruction program is unlikely to cater for the needs of all students, no matter the high-quality it has. Despite addressing the needs of the majority of students, many students remain disappointed with either being forced to move forward or left behind the average group (Raudys, 2021). Therefore, concerns have been voiced that one-size-fits-all is no longer compatible with 21st century inclusive education models, such as Competency-based Education (CBE), Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS), and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). While 21st century education models share a common goal of helping every student to succeed, it is clear general instruction has fallen short to achieve that goal. Fortunately, an increasing number of school systems have recently shifted to inclusive education and personalized learning, the essential strategy to implement inclusive education programs (Shawer, 2022a).
1. What is personalized learning?
Personalized learning is “an educational approach that tailors learning around each individual student’s needs, interests, and abilities. Each student is given differentiated instruction based on their personal learning characteristics” (Raudys, 2021). Customizing instruction therefore requires multiple learning activities as well as multiple assessment tasks to achieve and measure the same learning outcomes (LOs) (Juraschka, 2021; Shawer, 2022a).
Although learning is customized to cater for student needs, academic standards, quality and learning goals must not be compromised. While customizing learning activities and assessments to every student, the learning standards, quality, and goals remain the same for all students. For example, in CBE, while one student might take two weeks to achieve one competency and its LOs, another peer might achieve them in just one week. Alternatively, the first student might receive focused or intensive support to achieve them in one week as the second student. Moreover, both students might have been through different learning and assessment activities. However, both of them must have achieved these LOs at the same or at least the minimum competency level (Shawer, 2022b). Here is a summary of the main features of personalized learning:
- A process of assessing each student and customizing learning experiences accordingly.
- Customizing learning experiences to each student needs, interests, and abilities.
- Learning is customized based on different student learning characteristics.
- Method and speed of learning vary for students.
- LOs, academic standards, and learning quality do not change for all students.
- Students set their learning goals in consultation with their teachers.
- Students have a say on how to approach their own learning.
- Students have a say on how to be assessed.
- Students engage in self-assessments and reflections.
- Students learn the information they need and fill in knowledge and skills gaps without the stigma of special-ed.
- Teachers manage time more effectively for providing support for those in need.
2. How personalized learning can be implemented?
Personalized instruction is not an easy task for schools and teachers to achieve. Nor is it simple to cater for the needs of slow and fast learners without stopping the entire class. Shifting from a time-based to performance-based instruction requires a change in thinking and behavior. This depends on whether education authorities, school leadership, and teachers are ready to adopt the personalized instruction transformation (Shawer, 2022c). To effectively customize learning, Fig 1 shows teachers need to develop personalized learning strategies in these areas:
2.1 Student screening
2.2 Flexible instruction
2.3 Flexible assessment
2.1 Student screening
Customizing instruction starts with universal instruction. Although universal instruction seeks to help all students to achieve the same LOs, it does not mean all students use the same content, carry out the same learning activities or learn in the same pace. It does, however, mean applying universal design for learning (UDL) through using multiple ways of engagement, representation, and action and expression. In other words, every student would have an equitable opportunity to succeed. To develop universal instruction, teachers should have the skills of how to screen students through initial or diagnostic assessments. They need to conduct this first and essential step to be able to select the content and learning activities that would cater for student differences (e.g., prior knowledge, learning styles, interests, weaknesses, and strengths) (Shawer, 2022b).
Fig. 1 Personalized learning
Conducting initial screening, however, involves multiple assessment tools so that teachers understand student performance and behavior. Using multiple assessment tools requires the ability to design, conduct, and analyze, for example, observations, interviews, and surveys. Moreover, teachers should be able to conduct formal and informal assessments. On the other hand, the ability to screen students also requires outreaching to various sources, including students, parents, school administrators, guardians, other teachers, as well as school staff (Juraschka, 2021; Rosen, 2022; Shawer, 2022b). In summary, student screening requires teachers to learn how to:
- identify student interests, learning styles, weaknesses, and strengths.
- use multiple data collection methods.
- conduct formal and informal assessments.
- collect data from multiple sources.
- analyze and make use of data.
2.2 Flexible instruction
Flexible instruction requires creativity, tailored and timely learning supports, commitment, and determination to help every student to succeed regardless of their background. To achieve flexible instruction, teachers need to develop knowledge and skills in these areas:
2.2.1 Multiple engagement methods
2.2.2 Multiple representation methods
2.2.3 Multiple action methods
2.2.1 Multiple engagement methods
Providing multiple ways of engagement is a way to communicate why students should learn (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). By showing the learning value, students are more likely to invest the time and effort to achieve it. Without that engagement, personalized instruction cannot be realized (Shawer, 2022d).
The question now is how can students be engaged with learning? How should they be motivated and given a purpose? One way is to build on student interests. You can also show the learning relevance to their lives by listing the reasons for students to learn. Other ways include helping students to create personal goals by showing how the course prepares for a particular career. You might also help students to set learning goals alongside ways to monitor progress toward them. Moreover, multimedia content (e.g., text, graph, audio, and video material) encourages students to engage with the course. In addition, running different lessons makes learning interesting. A key way to make it interesting is to use different active learning strategies, which rely mainly on the student effort, in every lesson. Assessment tasks also determine how students engage with learning. For example, classroom assessment techniques (CATs), such as punctuated lecture, minute paper, concept mapping, and fishbowl encourage student participation (Shawer, 2022d). It is clear engagement with learning occurs when students are provided with options to choose from.
Engagement with learning is also likely to occur when teachers minimize learning threats and distractions, optimize goal demands, use collaborative activities, provide timely and personalized feedback, help students set the goals they think they can achieve, and when teachers help students learn coping strategies to overcome obstacles and frustration. Moreover, self-assessment and reflection help students to keep working toward goals (CAST, 2018). In summary, teachers can engage students with learning in many ways:
- direct students to become strategic and goal-directed.
- help students to set personal and learning goals.
- provide students with learning pathways/ options.
- encourage students to self assess and monitor learning.
- minimize threats and frustration.
- optimize learning demands.
- show the reasons behind learning.
- show the relevance of learning to student needs (e.g., future career).
- relate VLOs [vocational learning outcomes] to students.
- relate EESOs [essential employability outcomes] to students.
- use multimedia content and technology.
- build student interests into learning.
- address learner differences (e.g., learning styles, ability, culture, and learning preferences).
- vary active learning strategies in every lesson.
- vary assessment tasks.
- provide immediate and formative feedback (Shawer, 2022d).
2.2.2 Multiple representation methods
Multiple ways of representation concern what students will learn (CAST, 2018; Nisbet, 2020). An important strategy to customize learning is to help all students achieve the same LO through different materials. Using the same content to communicate target knowledge and skills is at odds with inclusive education. As a result, multiple content representation is necessary for personalized learning to allow every student to process learning through the channels compatible with their psychological makeup (Shawer, 2022d).
For example, deaf students who have a sensory/ physical disability need visual material to facilitate their processing of learning. Although blind students may benefit from audio material, they cannot read without special texts, such as Braille. Likewise, regular written texts do not suit dyslexic students who have a learning disability. On the other hand, students who have neither learning or sensory issues would not process the same material in the same way. For example, while it is easier for auditory students to process audio content, visual students are more comfortable with a visual content. As a result, multiple ways of content representation are essential for personalize learning (CAST, 2018; Shawer, 2017). In summary, teachers can represent content in multiple ways:
- use multiple content (e.g., text, audio, video, and graph) to achieve the same LO.
- provide content written in comprehensible language.
- use bias-free and culturally relevant content.
- support difficult content with notations and explanations.
- provide background knowledge in appendices or as hypermedia.
- define/ explain vocabulary, terms, and symbols (Shawer, 2022d).
2.2.3 Multiple action methods
Multiple ways of action concern how teachers develop and implement learning activities. Helping all students to achieve the same LO through different learning activities is another important strategy for customizing learning (Shawer, 2022d). Unless teachers are able to address the same LO by means of different learning activities, personalized learning programs will not function properly. Typically, you would have two broad cognitive styles in your classroom (Riding & Rayner, 1998). This means some students tend to process learning in wholes, whereas others tend to process learning in parts. This is why teachers need to conduct initial student screening to identify learning styles so that they can use learning activities compatible with these different learning preferences. Moreover, other students better learn while interacting with others (field-dependent), or in solo activities (field-independent). Again, customizing learning must address these differences by providing solo and collaborative activities (Shawer, 2022d). Since students learn in different ways, how can teachers address that? Numerous strategies are available for teachers to personalize learning. One strategy is to set up learning stations as follows:
- Set a number of learning stations in the classroom.
- Use flexible seating to allow learning to occur in stations.
- All stations must address the same lesson LO or LOs.
- Provide different activities for students to achieve each LO.
- Each station should involve unique learning activities (different from other stations).
- Students select learning stations.
- Assign questions for students to answer in each station.
- Students may rotate between stations.
- Bring the class for discussion to correct misunderstanding and summarize main points.
To vary learning activities in different learning stations, students can watch a video in the first station, create artwork in the second, read an article in the third, complete puzzles in the fourth, and listen to a teacher demonstration in the fifth (Guido, 2021; Tomlinson).
Using task cards is another strategy to customize learning. Like learning stations, task cards allow students to learn through different content formats and activities. Students can do task cards in solo, pair or small group activities. Task cards could be used as follows:
- Prepare the task cards you need to use in your lesson:
- Create different tasks or select different tasks from worksheets or textbooks.
- Each card must contain a single task.
- Print and laminate each card (alternatively, use premade cards).
- Set up learning stations:
- A single student can work alone to do a task, or
- Every pair can work together to do a single task, or
- A group of students can work together to do a single task, or
- Single students, pairs, and/ or small-groups rotate through the tasks.
- Monitor students and address learning gaps when needed (Guido, 2021; Shawer, 2022d; Tomlinson).
Teachers may also use think-pair-share to customize instruction in solo, pair, and whole group activities. This strategy encourages students to generate complex and challenging ideas on their own, refine them through pair discussions, generate various thoughts on the topic, and facilitate understanding of complex content and readings (Teaching &Learning in Higher Education, 2021). Teachers can use them as follows:
- Topic presentation: teachers present the topic or problem but should avoid asking simple/recall type of questions.
- Solo ideas: Set time for students and ask them to think about answers on their own first by writing their attempt to the issue.
- Pair ideas: Set time for each student to pair up with a peer to discuss their ideas or answers, and write down a refined answer. Students should prepare to share their ideas with the class.
- Whole group discussion: Invite a few pairs to share their ideas with the class, invite class reactions, use class reactions to develop ideas and draw conclusions.
Teachers can also use free study time to personalize instruction. Free study benefits both field-independent students (who prefer to learn individually) and field-dependent students (who prefer learning with others). Moreover, free study exercises meet the preferences of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (who prefer physical activities) students. You can create quiet spaces for solo and collaborative activities. It should be noted that all free study exercises must be relevant to your lesson and curriculum skills. For example, you may provide audiobooks and create a station for challenging group games (Guido, 2021; Shawer, 2022d; Tomlinson). There are numerous other strategies for teachers to personalize instruction, including lineup, inner, middle and outer circles, fishbowl, snowball, complete-turn taking, debates, flipped classroom, and buzz groups. To engage students with multiple ways of action, you need to:
- facilitate learning by using different activity types (e.g., solo, pairs, pair groups, small group, and whole group).
- use multiple learning activities to achieve the same LO.
- vary process objectives for each student.
- keep outcome objectives/ LOs constant.
- adjust task demands to student ability and pace.
- provide self-guided learning activities.
- students choose the types of activities that work best for them.
- assign a minimum point requirement to be achieved to make sure LOs attained.
- set mastery checkpoints to assess LOs and if students can advance to the next level.
- use technology to engage and connect with students.
- use e-learning systems to track and manage learning needs of all students.
- use e-learning systems to allow students to learn at their own individual pace.
- use e-learning systems to allow students to have fun while learning.
2.3 Flexible assessment
Flexible assessment involves multiple ways of expression, which concern providing students with multiple assessment opportunities so that they can express learning in their preferred assessment tasks (Shawer, 2022d). Like students have preferred channels of processing learning (organizing and assimilating), they also have preferred channels of representing/ expressing that learning. For example, while verbal students better express learning verbally, it is easier for imagery students to express learning in mental images. Moreover, a single LO might require multiple assessment tasks to be measured (Shawer, 2017).
Allowing students multiple ways to demonstrate learning is essential to all personalized learning programs. Since students learn in different ways, they need multiple assessment opportunities to allow every student to demonstrate what they’ve learned in their preferred assessment method. Not every student can express learning on a single assessment task. For example, one student may express an average performance on a writing essay, the same student can express high performance through a demonstration. Using multiple assessment tasks is therefore necessary to allow every student to express learning. As a result, students should have multiple ways in order that they can express learning through two types of assessment:
2.3.1 Assessment for learning
2.3.2 Assessment of learning
2.3.1 Assessment for learning
Assessment for learning (diagnostic and formative) is used to collect information about what students learned and how well they learned it so that teachers can identify learning struggles and optimize learning accordingly. Since diagnostic assessment is discussed above (2.1 student screening), this section focuses on formative assessment. The purpose of formative assessment is to adjust instruction and improve student learning rather assessing students. Without this form of assessment, personalizing learning cannot be achieved. To achieve this purpose, formative assessment must be informative, qualitative, frequent, and timely. Most important, multiple assessments must be used to generate formative and timely feedback necessary for customizing learning. In this respect, teachers must be able to use a variety of classroom assessment techniques (CATs) to allow students multiple opportunities to express learning during actual teaching and learning activities. In particular, teachers should be able to use two types of CATs: concept checking CATs and performance CATs. For example, think-pair-share, minute paper, muddiest point, application cards, punctuated lecture, and self-assessment allow teachers to check concept understanding. On the other hand, fishbowl, snowball, classroom-based case studies, and jigsaw enable teachers to assess performance on actual tasks (Shawer, 2022d).
2.3.2 Assessment of learning
On the other hand, unlike assessment for learning (formative), assessment of learning (summative) is used to measure whether students achieved learning outcomes at the end of a unit, module, or course. To provide multiple ways of expression, teachers need to use a data-driven approach, a blend of traditional, outcomes-based, flexible, and alternative (performance, authentic, and portfolio) assessments. They should also use multiple assessment tasks (e.g., poster presentation, logs, journals, task performance, portfolio, and tests). Flexible assessment, for example, should be used for allowing students to choose assessment tasks, choose what to count into the final grade, self assess, peer assess, have a voice on assessment weights, as well as have multiple options for assignment completion. Sometimes, certain LOs must be assessed through a particular type of assessment tools. For example, while you can use multiple tasks to assess application LOs, you must use performance tasks to assess whether students can apply knowledge and skills. For example, your students can choose between a learning contract, performing a task, or a presentation. Traditional testing should not be used here, as it does not allow students to apply skills and knowledge in real or simulated situations. Teachers can, however, allow students to take a multiple response, multiple choice, or a matching test to check concept understanding (Shawer, 2022d).
Since personalized learning requires ongoing assessments, technology enables teachers to score and manage a large number of assessment tasks. Using eLearning systems, for example, allow teachers to track and manage the learning needs of all students anytime through the automatic feedback on student progress. For example, Google Forms allow teachers to monitor student performance through the Automatic Response Forms they receive. Google Docs also allow easy student collaboration and immediate peer feedback (Raudys, 2021). To engage students with multiple ways of expression, you need to:
- allow students to demonstrate learning through multiple assessment tasks.
- use multiple assessment tasks to measure the same LO.
- use a data-driven assessment approach.
- use diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments.
- use technology to track and manage performance and provide feedback.
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