Individualized, Differentiated, and Personalized Learning

Contemporary life in our ever-changing society challenges the education system with demand for a highly-educated workforce dedicated to continual learning throughout a lifetime. This also calls for strategies to maximize the potential of diverse students. A hopeful answer to the challenge is the development of individualized learning, which is well underway.

Three Concepts of Individualized Learning

Historically, the first of these concepts was individualization, which refers to the learning for mastery ideas of Bloom.

A basic premise of learning for mastery is that each student should work at his/her own pace. This strategy alone can help students develop new skills and understanding.


It is reinforced by the second premise: implementing periodic formative assessments and feedback based on their results. The assessment — feedback cycle starts when the student completes the current topic (topics are typically designed to be completed in 1-2 weeks). The feedback assistance is individualized, tailored to the student’s needs. The higher the resolution ability of formative assessments, the more individualized and effective the feedback assistance can be. On the other hand, for students who have successfully completed the topic the feedback can provide enrichment or extension activities.


Differentiation is the second concept that is normally understood as a way to ensure effective learning in diverse classrooms by providing a number of learning pathways adjusted depending on the student’s readiness, interests, and learning profile. Students can be grouped by their learning needs, adjusted along four areas:


— Content (knowledge and skills students need to learn) — Students may be grouped by levels of mastery in the current topic. The most basic content covers the standards set by the district or state. Students unfamiliar with the concepts may be required to complete basic tasks on the knowledge and comprehension. Students with partial mastery may be asked to complete application tasks and other more complicated tasks, while those who have high levels of mastery may be assigned advanced tasks.

— Process (ways students master the content) — Students may be grouped by their learning styles, for example, reading, listening, working with manipulatives. However, according to some research data, using multiple ways of presentation is more beneficial than using a single type of presentation.

— Product (ways students demonstrate their skills and understanding) — Students can be assigned different ways to demonstrate mastery in what they have learned. For different subjects, this can range from solving a set of problems or writing a report to composing a song or building an object related to the content. This depends on the subject, and learning math to the state or district or standards imposes some limits on the possible product.

— Learning environment — Student grouping is flexible, with quiet areas for individual work as well as areas for group collaboration, or whole-class work.


Notice that differentiation emphasizes adjusting the process to learning preferences of different students while the above-mentioned individualization highlights students pacing at their own speed and feedback.

Personalization is an approach that emphasizes greater student role in formulating his/her individual learning path.

A working definition of personalized learning was developed not long ago by nine educational nonprofit organizations and an education management company, in collaboration with educators across the country. The definition specifies four attributes of personalized learning:


— Personal Learning Paths: All students held to clear, high expectations; each student follows a personalized learning plan that adapts to his/her strengths, changing needs, motivations, and goals; it is assumed that
1) choice of varied learning experiences is available for creating personalized
2) students are enabled to develop and manage their own learning paths

— Competency-Based Progression: Clearly-defined goals, ongoing assessment, earning credit when the student demonstrates mastery

— Learner Profiles: Up-to-date record of each student’s strengths, needs, motivations, and goals; actionable information and feedback to students, teachers, and families

— Flexible Learning Environments: Driven by changing student needs; staffing plans, space utilization, time allocation, and grouping respond and adapt to support students in achieving their goals


The idea of enabling students to develop and manage their learning paths stems from Montessori’s liberty of the pupils and auto-education principles. They were widely and successfully applied in Pre-K and Kindergarten education, while there is not too much data about self-directed learning in later grades. The approach is still emerging and discussed in the education community.


Moving it the Same Direction


The above three concepts are related by one core philosophy:

Tailoring learning to individual needs as opposed to standardized instruction
In the general sense and everyday usage, individualization, differentiation, and personalization are synonyms, while sometimes each of them can be used to point to a particular approach, with its differences from the other two.


The main pedagogical features of individualization-differentiation-personalization are:

— Placing each student in the right point of the curriculum
— Individual pacing
— Individualized scaffolding and immediate feedback
— Collecting student’s learning data, including periodic formative assessments
— Data-driven adjustments to the student’s learning path
— Covering academic standards set by the state or district


Road to the Future


The above pedagogical features narrowed down to the tutor – student setting are just well-known best practices. The challenge is: how far they can be extended to mass education? Some of them were actually extended in pioneering implementation by Montessori over a hundred years ago. In a short while after that, researchers started to look for technological support of individualized learning; the main reason for the quest was and still is that individualized mass education requires substantial resources.


The Pressey machine was the first 1920s attempt ate technological support; however, it was just a testing machine. In the 1950s, the Skinner machine was a step forward: it gave immediate feedback — the correct answer for each of the questions in a series. Together, the series of simple questions/answers led the student to mastering a certain skill.


 Another example was programmed textbooks: the student’s work on a chapter was immediately assessed (self-checking of the answers), with corrective feedback for typical mistakes, and directing the student alternatively to the next topic or to remediation material. Neither the above machines nor the programmed textbooks have ever been widely used; however, they showed how pedagogy can be supported by technology.


Contemporary information technology supports teachers in extending the best pedagogy principles to individualize learning in their classrooms. It is not a simple “turn on the technology” but a process of implementing blended learning:
— small group instruction
— independent self-paced work using technology, with flexible scaffolding and immediate feedback
— teacher’s easy access to information on the student’s progress, including recommendations based on frequent formative assessments
— teacher – student collaboration on the student’s individual needs, including the individual learning plan


This is the road to the future of education: driven by pedagogy, supported by technology.

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