Six Ways to Support Personalized Learning

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success grants support the winners in addressing three student-facing functions: education planning, counseling and coaching, and risk targeting and intervention.
  • To support personalized learning, grantees advised treating students as individuals, strengthening their engagement, accommodating different goals and styles, and building trust with students.
  • Institutionally, grantees recommended rethinking institutional structures and support and taking advantage of appropriate technologies.

In September 2015, EDUCAUSE announced the winners of Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grants, which were awarded to 26 institutions from across the United States. The initiative is intended to help two-year and four-year higher education institutions launch projects to address three broad, student-facing functions: education planning, counseling and coaching, and risk targeting and intervention. The goals of the iPASS initiative have clear connections with personalized learning, which refers to "a broad range of services, tools, and curricular models designed to create individualized learning for students." EDUCAUSE turned to the iPASS grantees — institutions committed to student success — for their thoughts on personalized learning. We asked them:

"What one thing should higher education institutions do to support personalized learning for their students?"

Their responses broke into six themes, mostly — but not uniformly — relevant to both two-year and four-year institutions. (The responses have been edited for length and style.)

1. Focus on Differing Levels of Preparation

Many respondents pointed to the unevenness in students' preparation for college as a significant and longstanding problem that personalized learning can address.

"Some students need extra support in learning how to be students." (two-year)

"Mitigate the differences in students' prior preparation and allow forward progress in the courses most likely to provide gateways to major and degree." (four-year)

"We know that low-income, first-generation college students need more personalized assistance in navigating college. Getting aid, choosing classes and majors, identifying when things are not going well and knowing where to reach out for help — these are all skills necessary to college success, but they are not equally distributed among the student population. The pairing of new technologies and proactive interventions means that large public universities can now deliver individualized assistance to students at scale." (four-year)

2. Strengthen Student Engagement

The tools and techniques of personalized learning are seen by many as effective agents in deepening the level of engagement students have with their institution, their instructors, and their education.

"There are several things we should be pursuing, but it boils down to increasing student engagement, including increased time on task and increased interest." (four-year)

"At a community college, the most important single thing to support personalized learning is to establish a personal relationship with each student, focused on individual goals. [...] This foundational personal relationship is only possible by using strategies that can scale, employing cohort-based approaches and technology to save time and effort on the bureaucratic aspects of a student's experience, freeing up resources for authentic interaction." (two-year)

"This process [of documentation and reflection on multiple and diverse learning experiences] makes learning visible to students themselves, helping them connect those experiences and integrate them into a meaningful whole, larger than the sum of the parts. Done well, this process supports a powerful and iterative developmental process of identify formation, which we could talk about as purposeful self-authorship." (two-year)

3. Accommodate Different Goals and Styles

At both two-year and four-year institutions, students have a broad range of educational goals and different ways of reaching those goals. Respondents called for personalized learning to provide comparable opportunities to students regardless of their path.

"Personalized learning facilitates success of students by providing them with a smorgasbord of opportunities to help identify the various learning styles, aspirations, and interests of the student. [...] Combining advising, degree planning, alerts, and interventions is an integral part of personalized learning. In addition, ensuring the existence of easily identifiable pathways for students is also paramount." (two-year)

"The most important aspect is to realize that all students are different, with various capabilities and ways of learning. [...] Institutions should strive to create academic and social environments that foster and promote student success and provide collaborative work environments." (four-year)

"Personalized learning is about serving the student holistically by providing academic and support services in an integrated fashion. [...] Implementation of individualized learning that allows students to reach college-level math at their own pace has led to significant increases in student success.." (two-year)

4. Rethink Institutional Structures and Support

Several responses from two-year institutions and one from a four-year institution called attention to familiar and established structures of higher education as barriers to many students, suggesting that personalized learning should be a part of efforts to modify those structures to promote student success.

"Higher education institutions can support personalized learning for students through continued transformation of its traditional organizational structure to a framework of equity for learners. Shifting from a design in which students are expected to conform to an institution's structures to a design in which the delivery of learning and its associated support systems and services conform to the learner's needs from day one leads to a more personalized approach." (two-year)

"Higher education institutions, especially community colleges, should implement technology and scheduling to allow for interruptions in learning rather than or in addition to the traditional 16-week lecture course." (two-year)

"The one thing institutions of higher education can do is provide a variety of support services (both human and technological) for students." (two-year)

"First, higher education institutions need to collect data for staff and faculty to use to be informed of individual students' needs, pathways of study, and support services and education plans. Second, with the assistance of technology, figure out how to serve students based upon this personalized information." (two-year)

"Institutions must develop the structure and support to assure that students progress in skill building via the technological tutor at a pace that facilitates their success in the course." (four-year)

5. Take Advantage of Appropriate Technologies

Although the promise of personalized learning extends well beyond the technologies designed to support it, several respondents highlighted the role that particular tools can play. Fewer two-year institutions mentioned specific technologies in their responses.

"While most higher education institutions have long made information available to students to assist them in personalizing their learning, few provided the powerful tools now available. [...] First, predictive analytics that enable students to plan their course-taking patterns based on their strengths can be a game changer. Second, e-portfolios [that] provide students a platform to curate and reflect on artifacts demonstrating their learning put students in the position to not only 'learn how to learn' but take control of their learning." (four-year)

"E-portfolios provide a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to support personalized learning for their students. E-portfolios...provide a personalized learning space that spans a student's entire learning experience, spanning courses, semesters, advising, educational planning, co-curricular activities, and lived experiences." (two-year)

"It is critical for higher education institutions to devise adaptive technological learning tutors that build students' skills in high-stakes foundational courses." (four-year)

"[Deploy] adaptive learning systems...and...advanced analytics to provide an evidentiary basis and feedback for student success." (four-year)

"Cross-division teaming is needed to ensure a successful and personalized pathway for each student and to create a safety net to catch students in distress. Key to this teaming is a platform that records student progress, engagements, and interventions and allows communication across education and service providers." (four-year)

6. Build Trust

Two responses, both from two-year institutions, mentioned that building trust among students is an important part of personalized learning.

"Finally and most important is the building of trusting relationships between employees and students, which allow an institution to restructure in ways that better serve students to meet their goals." (two-year)

"A personal relationship with a faculty or staff member or a peer establishes the trust and begins to create the resiliency our students need to succeed." (two-year)

Gregory Dobbin is a senior editor at EDUCAUSE, where he oversees content from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research. He holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado Boulder and a BA in English from Southwestern University.

© 2016 Gregory Dobbin. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.