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Personalized, Individualized, and Differentiated Learning: A Simple Math Equation

Monday, September 12, 2016 -- Madison Michell

Personalized, individualized, and differentiated—three flavors of learning with just enough in common to cause a lot of confusion in the education space. These terms are used so frequently (and often interchangeably), they’ve started to lose their inherent meaning. Rather than adding to the chaos, at Edmentum, we’ve directed our time and energy towards consulting articles and research published by trusted organizations in the industry to arrive at a visual definition that’s easy to follow.

To begin, it’s important to understand that each of these terms are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact, when you break it down, you can easily see the overlap in our simple math equation. While individualized learning and differentiated learning are relatively self-contained, more recently they’ve been combined (with a few tweaks added to the role of the student) to become the ubiquitous term—personalized learning.

Personalized Learning Equation

Still, sifting through each approach can feel murky at times. The good news however, is that at the heart of each of these educational models, you’ll find a series of familiar principles that you probably already integrate into your daily instruction. Let’s take a closer look:

Individualized Learning

Individualized learning is all about giving students control over the pace or speed at which they learn. With this approach, struggling learners aren’t left overwhelmed by yet another lesson they don’t understand, and accelerated students aren’t left feeling unchallenged and disengaged. While large class sizes often challenge an educator’s ability to pace learning to students’ individual abilities, the increasing use of technology in the classroom is chipping away at that problem. With adaptive solutions in place, students are able to begin learning at their instructional level, thus individualizing the educational experience for students below, on, and above grade level.

Differentiated Learning

No two students learn in quite the same way—this is the guiding principle behind differentiated learning. With this approach, educators take into account students’ varying learning modalities to plan instruction that’s catered to learner preferences and includes different ways for students to demonstrate understanding. Many modalities are discussed within this approach, but the primary four include visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic learning. For example, while some students prefer to learn by watching videos and viewing illustrations, others favor hands-on activities and experiments to really make learning click. Differentiated learning recognizes that a variety of tactics must be utilized in order to reach every student.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is seen as the opposite to the “one-size-fits-all” approach. The objective of this method is to take into account individual student needs, interests, and goals by giving students choice in how, when, and where they learn. In addition to bringing together individualized and differentiated learning as part of this approach, personalized learning elevates the role of the student, positioning the educator as a partner rather than a leader in each student's educational journey. Classroom technology can support many components of personalized learning to help enable this process, but ultimately it is anchored by innovative teaching. When learning is personalized, educators are able to facilitate a deeper, more effective learning experience for their students.

While each of these approaches to learning is critical to creating positive outcomes for students, current resources and classroom strategies are making it more and more possible to achieve the whole enchilada—to provide every learner with a tailored, authentic, and effective experience.

Want to learn more about what personalized learning looks like in the classroom? Register for our live webinar and join us as we break down the fundamentals of personalized learning, provide clarity on student and teacher roles in the process, and offer insight on how to build personalized learning plans for your students!