Personalizing Learning

Education standards define common student achievement. However, standards should not define a standardized curriculum in which all students, with their diverse abilities and interests, are expected to achieve standards at the same speed, in the same learning style, and through the same context and experiences. Personalizing learning is a process of pedagogy, curriculum and/or learning environments for learners to meet their students different learning needs and aspirations.

Two terms that are often conflated with personalizing learning are differentiated instruction and adaptive learning and both are examples of personalizing, but not exactly the same.

Differentiated instruction are strategies that teacher apply in the classroom to adjust to students’ varying readiness levels, interests, and preferred mode of learning through changes in content, form or scope of student work, time or supports needed to compete the work.  In contrast personalizing includes differentiating practices, but often includes curriculum options at the school or district level.

Adaptive learning is an educational method, which is often technology embedded, that adapts the presentation of educational content according to students’ learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks. In contrast, personalizing often includes instruction that is not technology-based. Further, personalizing learning is a dynamic process of ongoing adjustment and not a fixed curriculum. The key to adaptive learning is breaking curriculum down into small bits, which can allow students to learn at individual speeds. Personalizing learning is more robust than adaptive learning, since requires focus on big ideas or making something through which student display their individual  talents.

Teachers need to not confuse an education product that advertises being personalized and assume it is identical to the process of personalizing.  Personalized is  a product, often a static curriculum package that may allow learning at different speeds, but personalizing is process where teachers are constantly adjusting and adapting instruction to make it more personal to student. Author Will Richardson said it well, “’Personalized‘ learning is something that we do to kids; ‘personal‘ learning is something they do for themselves.”

Connection to School Improvement

Students in any classroom bring diverse experiences to learning.  In regard to future careers, students will pursue many diverse paths.  Instruction that seeks to develop, academic knowledge, performance skills and Life/Career Abilities needs to respect every student’s uniqueness. Offering a standardized set of career learning experiences for all students will not meet the needs of all students.  Instruction related to career readiness begins with getting to know students and their developing interests and abilities. This is not to categorize or track students into a single career-related program, but to support them in developing their interests through opportunities to show their interests and talents, reflect on what excites them, discover their passions and pursue their aspirations.

Schools need to create multiple learning experiences that can be personalized to each student’s unique needs. Secondary schools need to provide multiple pathways to a diploma that reflect a diversity of career and postsecondary learning options. This becomes even more critical as schools aspire to develop the personal and technical skills students need to be both college and career ready.


  • Build Connections with Relevance — Students are more likely to engage in learning when they see a relevance. Teachers therefore need to connect instruction to the daily lives of students and aspects of their community and experience. Teachers successfully add relevance by encouraging students’ questions, displaying of talents and interests, and by relating instruction to external events.
  • Differentiate — Differentiated instruction meets individual students’ needs. Teachers need to allow students to move at a pace consistent with their development. Student work also provides opportunities for individual choice and so they need opportunities to demonstrate unique talents during learning experiences.
  • Adjust Based on Feedback — Teachers should not be merely agents to  deliver a standardized curriculum ,  but rather knowhow to adjust instruction as necessary based on reflection and feedback from students. Teachers should feel empowered to make adjustments in curriculum to better meet student needs. Providing timely, formative feedback to students is also an opportunity to listen and make adjustments to instruction to better meet student needs.
  • Create College and Career Pathways — Schools need to create multiple learning experiences that can be personalized to each student’s unique needs. Secondary schools need to provide multiple pathways to a diploma that reflects a diversity of career and postsecondary learning options.
  • Value All Career Choices — Educators often promote the value of education by citing statistics that having more college degrees leads to higher average earnings, a practice that intentionally or unintentionally often demeans those occupations that requires no college degree. The truth is that there are great ranges in actual earnings across jobs and what each student eventually earns depends — perhaps more than credentials — on his or her ability to perform a job well. Part of doing the job well is having a passion for the work. While emphasizing education and pursuing careers, teachers need to emphasize dignity of all work and some careers are not more important than others.  A successful society needs excellent plumbers and philosophers.


Following are several resources that SPN is familiar with that will assist school staff in strengthening instruction in Personalizing Learning. If you have additional resources to suggest, please let us know at or in the Community.

National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T) 

NC3T fosters regional college-to-career pathway systems that are supported and led by alliances of educators, employers, and civic organizations. NC3T works with, districts, state and regional efforts to designing pathways systems.

National Career Pathways Network (NCPN)

NCPN is a membership organization for educators, employers and others involved in the advancement of Career Pathways, and related education reform initiatives. NCPN is housed at the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD).

Learner Engagement for Academic Success

This a publication from the International Center for Leadership in Education that offers practical advice on creating a culture of engagement that leads to success for all students.  Topics covered include activities for building student relationships, preconditions and pedagogy for engagement-based learning and teaching, and using technology as a mechanism for engagement.

Effective Instructional Strategies — Quadrant D Moments

Another publication from the International Center for Leadership in Education provides instructional strategies for all grade levels and subject areas, along with hundreds of brief “D-moment” activities that build and reinforce high rigor and relevance within the classroom every day. The activities address multiple learning styles and intelligences and explain how each strategy addresses Quadrant D learning.