6 Key Factors of Personalized Learning

Preparing Today’s Learners for Tomorrow’s Challenges

By Janet Pittock, Curriculum Director, McGraw-Hill Education

Today’s learners have a wide variety of needs. We know from looking at assessment data that most classrooms contain learners whose abilities correspond to different points along the learning continuum. Students learn most effectively when they work in their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), that Goldilocks zone of “not too hard, not too easy, but just right” where they have enough challenge to keep them engaged but not so much that they give up.

Personalized learning is neither a technology nor a tool; rather it is an approach — one designed to unlock the full potential of each learner. The teacher and the learner collaborate to drive learning and pinpoint individualized needs, plan the right instructional path, and design the learning curriculum. Personalizing learning is a process of making decisions to balance the trifecta of learning design, proficiency goals, and the practicalities of the classroom.

While we cannot predict the future for each of our students, we can predict that persistent, self-directed, life-long learners will be best positioned to prosper. Personalizing learning is essential to developing these skills in our learners.

Building a Bridge to Success

Moving from a traditional classroom organization to personalized learning can be a challenging journey. Teachers can play with making choices about six factors that impact the traditional to personalized continuum as they explore how these factors impact the learning experience. Professional social networking, ongoing professional development, and other opportunities for learning help educators evaluate impacts and meet the challenges along the way.

Personalized Learning: Six Factors

As educators collaborate with learners to co-create the learning environment, they make decisions. Optimizing personalized learning never involves making all-or-nothing decisions. Rather, every decision depends on the goal, considered together with the time and resources at hand.

  1. Teacher-Directed vs. Learner-Centered: Who makes decisions and drives learning? Teacher-Directed decisions often focus on ensuring delivery of instruction to develop content knowledge. Learner-Centered decisions help students develop life-long learning skills.
  2. One-Size-Fits-All vs. Variety of Learning Interactions: To which learning resources will the learners have access? Math educators and learners planning classroom strategies often find that incorporating a wide variety of practices into the instructional learning design can more effectively assist students in meeting academic goals.
  3. Technology to Enhance vs. Technology to Transform: Where does technology use fall along the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) continuum for integrating technology into teaching? (adapted from Puentedura, 2010)
  4. Data Evaluates Learning vs. Data Impacts Learning: Is assessment used primarily for evaluation? Does the data help direct what a learner encounters next? Data gathered from assessments can help inform changes to support learning, decisions about revising curricula, and choices regarding learning opportunities.
  5. Pacing-Chart-Driven vs. Competency-Driven: Do all learners move through the curriculum at the same time, regardless of proficiency? Pacing charts help ensure that teachers throughout the school or district are covering material on high-stakes assessment in preparation for the tests. Competency-based instruction first assesses where a student needs to begin to acquire proficiency with a topic, and then supports the learner until he or she is proficient with the material. Learners move forward at their own pace.
  6. Independence vs. Collaboration: Are learners working independently, or do they interact and communicate to learn? Both traditional and personalized classrooms can provide opportunities for independent and inter-dependent work.

Improvements in technology and greater access to digital curriculum programs are making personalized instructional techniques scalable. Personalized experiences provide the opportunity for learners to achieve goals beyond acquiring content knowledge. Personalizing learning is a process rather than a program or technology. Today’s students live in a climate of constant sensory input — a rich mix of sound, video, written and visual information, and social media interactions. The fast-paced, visual, responsive environments they experience condition learners to expect rich, interactive learning events. Learners want to engage with experiential content that interests them, and they yearn for control over what and how they learn. Personalizing learning using digital curricula is a powerful way to help address these learner needs.

To learn more about strategies and resources for delivering a positive and measurable impact on students’ outcome, check out my webinar on Building the Bridge to Personalized Learning in Classroom: 6 Essential Hallmarks.

With roots in elementary classrooms, Janet Pittock has a deep, personal commitment to personalizing learning environments to inspire and engage each student. Janet taught elementary school, preschool, special ed, and Algebra 1. She has overseen marketing, product management, and product development in mathematics, literacy, science, and early childhood at McGraw-Hill Education, Redbird, Scholastic, Creative Publications, Think Through Learning, and Harcourt Achieve. Marilyn Burns, Carole Greenes, Skip Fennel, and other thought leaders collaborated with Janet, publishing books such as Do The Math, Groundworks, and Connect. Professional Development is important to Janet, she learns from attendees of her presentations and trainings which range from intimate in-school training programs, to national conference or symposium workshops and keynotes, to webinars with hundreds of registrants. One of her favorite quotes is “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman., Eds.) (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original manuscripts [ca. 1930–1934])

Puentedura, R. 2010. ‘SAMR and TPCK: intro to advanced practice’. Available at http://goo.gl/78UJn

Romrell, D., Kidder, L., & Wood, E. (2014). The SAMR model as a framework for evaluating mLearning. Online Learning Journal, 18(2).