Demystifying Individualized Learning and Personalized Learning

November 08, 2016

Discover the key to unlocking more effective blended learning.

The terms individualized learning and personalized learning are often used interchangeably to describe the student-teacher collaboration that has become the 21st century classroom. While these terms are related and share some qualities they are not, in fact, interchangeable.

It’s useful to look at these two teaching techniques as pieces of the same puzzle that educators, parents, and education advocates struggle with: how to better engage and motivate all students—from struggling readers and ELL students, to grade-level and advanced learners. The goal is to provide the entire spectrum of learners in a classroom with equal access to the deep knowledge and skills that are the foundation for success in school and beyond. A tall order to be sure!

Understanding the differences between these terms—and how they work together—is the key to unlocking more effective blended learning techniques to address the academic goals of each and every student. Let’s start with the basics:

What is Individualized Learning?

As every teacher knows, a classroom of 30 students will have a broad range of students with different strengths and learning gaps. Individualized learning, or individualized instruction, addresses the needs of each child, one at a time (as opposed to differentiated instruction, which is a teaching method for groups of students at the same academic level). Lesson content, method of delivery, and learning pace are determined by the abilities, interests, and needs of each student.   

The academic goals for the entire class are the same: to meet state standards and grade-level course requirements. What’s different is that the teacher acts as a facilitator who tailors appropriate individualized learning plans, or paths, for each class member—whether that means remediation or accelerated learning—allowing for every student to move through curriculum at their own speed.

What is Personalized Learning?

While individualized learning is initiated by the teacher, personalized learning puts the student in the driver’s seat. Personalized learning involves each student in the process of choosing academic activities based on their learning style, interests, talents, and other preferences.

Each student identifies their learning goals and benchmarks, with guidance from a teacher and peers. (As opposed to the teacher being solely responsible for creating an individualized learning plan.) Students move forward at their own rate, based on mastery of content in a competency-based system. Active learning, wherein students “learn by doing” with a variety of media and activities, deepens student understanding and keeps each class member engaged and motivated to reach their own unique academic goals.

It’s no wonder that students want their education to adapt to fit their needs and interests. More than half of high school and middle school students surveyed in the 2015 Speak Up national survey said they like learning when they can be in control of when and how they learn. Personalized learning meets each student at their individual level of knowledge and learning style, boosting outcomes, engagement, motivation and, ultimately, success.

How do Personalized Learning and Individualized Learning Work Together?

Technology, when implemented and utilized properly, seamlessly integrates the benefits of personalized learning and individualized learning, facilitating both more effective teaching and more successful learning. Listen to what educators are saying about the power of digital curriculum:

“Students move at their own pace, students who are able to move faster do so and  students who need more time are given more time, and the teacher is freed up to be more of a facilitator of learning.” — Michelle Arnett, Instructional Technology Interventionist


Digital curriculum has the capability to supply real-time assessment to guide students and redirect them when they go down the wrong path. A “learn by doing” instructional approach actively engages students in their learning and embeds opportunities for them to check their understanding through frequent formative interactive activities. These low-stakes or no-stakes assessments are designed to give students relevant and meaningful practice that helps them build understanding. Program features designed to build confidence and comprehension may include modeled responses, targeted feedback, and hints that support students’ understanding of concepts.

Both students and teachers benefit from digital curriculum that utilizes ongoing, real-time data for assessment of student comprehension. An intuitive dashboard enables teachers to quickly view and analyze data for each student to direct them in individualized lessons and homework, as well as plan lessons appropriate for the entire class. Learn more about the data driven blended learning classroom.

Learning today is increasingly a collaboration between teachers and students. The beauty of the 21st century classroom is that technology offers an increasingly broad range of engaging learning choices that are giving students more responsibility and teaching them how to learn. Effective teachers are incorporating all of these tools in a student-centric manner, guiding students in their choices and helping each student to be a self-confident, motivated learner.

According to the Center for Digital Education’s (CDE) 2015 Digital School Districts Survey, personalized learning is the #1 priority of schools and districts. The top benefits experienced by schools transitioning to personalized learning include:

  • Student engagement was increased by 69%.
  • Student retention rates rose by 39%.
  • Test scores improved by 28%.
  • Grades and attendance increased by 22%.

Personalized Learning White Paper

Download our free White Paper to learn more about how to move your school toward more personalized learning and the full results of the 2015/16 Speak Up national survey.


When assessing digital curriculum that fully integrates both individualized learning and personal learning, features to look for include:

  • Multiple course pathways
  • Active learning instructional approach
  • Prescriptive pre-tests
  • Frequent low-stakes assessments and feedback for students
  • Meaningful real-time data displayed in an intuitive dashboard for teachers
  • Student-centered learning
  • Anytime-anywhere learning

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