Personalizing the Learning Experience: The Changing Role of the Learner

One of the many benefits of personalized learning is that it empowers learners to develop agency and responsibility for their own learning. This is not always easy or comfortable, especially for learners who are accustomed to depending on teachers for instructions for what, when, and how to learn. But the potential rewards are great. As noted in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan, learners who master agency lay the foundation for self-directed lifelong learning, a critical skill for thriving in a rapidly changing world and for our nation to remain globally competitive.

Students from Palisades School District in in Bucks County, Pennsylvania programming a robot to tackle a challenge from their Future Ready teacher.

Because a fundamental tenet of personalized learning is that it taps into learner interests and experiences, making learning more engaging and relevant, teachers adept at developing agency in their students encourage them to choose topics and learning resources that align with their passions. One way of accomplishing is to institute “genius hours,” a set time each week when students can explore their own passions. Students attending Vance Middle School in Bristol, TN, have used their genius hours to explore topics such as why golf balls have dimples and how life is different in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Some teachers also let learners choose their own learning modalities. For example, one learner might choose to watch a video and another might choose to read a text. Some let learners decide when to take assessments to measure their progress, and although less common, some partner with learners to develop their personalized learning objectives.

Personalized Learning in Core Content Areas, Palisades School District, PA

An essential component of developing teachers who can instill ownership and agency in their students is to empower them to become learners alongside their students in the classroom. At Palisades School District in Kintersville, PA, for example, teachers are given the ability to design project-driven work, create autonomy for their students, and use technology to give students the time and space to become owners of their own learning process.

Individual learning plans promote agency

In some personalized learning environments, teachers promote learner agency by using individual learning plans that include short- and long-term academic goals along with strategies for how the learner’s learning will be structured, including objectives, instruction, and/or pace. These personalized plans are determined through collaboration between the learner and the teacher and often include interim goals directly linked to formative assessments that learners and teachers can use to monitor ongoing progress toward long-term goals. Teachers typically meet individually with learners at regular intervals to discuss progress on the individual learning plans and make adjustments for the future.

One example of schools in which individual learning plans are used is Summit Public Schools, where each morning, students connect to their Personalized Learning Plans through their mobile devices. The plans contain both their short-term and long-term project views, the materials they need to complete their projects, and just-in-time formative feedback to improve their individual learning, all in one location.

Personalized Learning at Summit Public Schools

Using a color-coded system, each project is linked explicitly with the associated content knowledge standards so learners can see the progress they have made toward those standards and areas in which they need more practice. This automated feedback and work management system increases agency and motivation by giving learners the formative feedback they need in real time. This system also makes it easier for teachers to track a learner’s progress, give them timely feedback, and plan and execute personalized instruction more efficiently and effectively.

In addition to specific elements in a personalized learning environment that emphasize choice, most districts and schools implementing personalized learning also focus on develop learning mindsets, strategies, and behaviors necessary for self-managed learning.

The mindsets might include an orientation toward mastery — in which learners are fundamentally motivated to demonstrate mastery rather than simply get good grades — or a growth mindset — in which students understand that their intelligence grows with their effort, good strategies, and help from others. These mindsets, and the strategies and behaviors necessary to make them actionable in learning, can be explicitly taught and instilled by teachers. For example, teachers can frame assessment activities, explain why learning can be challenging, or explicitly model and instruct learners in these behaviors.

Path to Pedagogical Change, Coachella Valley Unified School District, CA

One example of a district dedicated to helping its teachers make these types of shifts in teaching and instructional practices is Coachella Valley Unified School District in Thermal, CA. District Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams calls it “the magic” in the classroom. “When I go into a classroom, I don’t see a teacher standing there lecturing,” says Dr. Adams. “I see activity. I see students collaborating. And you know that you have opened up the learning opportunities and that [students] have taken ownership of that. They’re in control, they feel powerful, they feel much more responsible to themselves.”

What do students think of agency?

It’s easy to understand why students — and their teachers — like personalized learning. For example, after experiencing what he calls “a legacy sixth-grade class,” Paxton Larson, a student in the Create House, a personalized learning environment developed by the Kettle Moraine School District in Wales, WI, was energized by being able to learn across disciplines and at his “own pace without having to wait for the teacher.”

Learning Without Boundaries: Create House, Kettle Moraine School District, WI

Larson described how he and other students approached a National History Day project by focusing on their own interests, learning beyond the classroom, and demonstrating learning in a myriad of ways. “Some kids made a documentary, some made a website, some made a research paper, and some made a museum exhibit,” said Larson.

Importantly, districts and schools that give learners the freedom to pursue their own interests and work at their own pace on projects of their choice to achieve a learning objective have found that it results in greater student motivation. One example of such a district is the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, ID, a Future Ready district and a Race to the Top-District grantee. Among the strategies Warren Township uses to motivate students is blended learning, which combines in-class and online learning in the classroom and beyond. Another is to provide real-world learning by partnering with businesses and other organizations in the community to give students shadowing and internship opportunities. To read the story of Warren Township’s personalized learning journey, click here.


Bernadette Adams is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. She leads the development of online tools and policy reports focused on learning analytics, expanding evidence-based practices, connected educators, future ready leaders, personalized learning, and non cognitive factors.