In recent years, the idea of personalized learning has become a new focus for many districts and a trendy buzzword for anyone and everyone involved in the field of education. But what do we really mean by personalized learning and what does that look like in practice?
The idea of personalized learning is as old as time itself. The instructional model in which a tutor instructs an individual student one-on-one has long been accepted as the most effective method of educating a student. As tutors are able to adjust the pace of learning to the specific needs of their individual student, the power of personalized learning has proved not only to make intuitive sense, but has been supported by research as well. Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 study, for example, showed that students who were tutored 1-on-1 performed much better than those who received standard classroom instruction (Bloom, 1984; Horn, 2014).
Tutors, however, are a luxury. It simply isn’t possible to provide personal tutors for each and every student in the classroom. Fortunately, technological solutions such as Knowre have begun to apply many of the strategies that make tutors so effective in their programs. In order to see how this looks in action, we will explore the 7 key elements that make tutor-driven learning so powerful and effective and consider how technology can bring these best practices into the modern day classroom.
The key feature of tutor-facilitated personalized learning is the student-centered approach to instruction. Technology is a great tool for enabling teachers to personalize their instruction to reach each and every student in their classroom. Technology-based curricula allow students to learn at their own pace and include support features that allow them to develop into independent learners. This is critical since every student learns at a different pace, comes to class with different knowledge gaps, and exhibits diversity in the way knowledge is mastered.
Tutor-facilitated personalized learning is especially effective because the tutor has the knowledge and flexibility to design learning opportunities and exercises for their students on an individualized basis. A few recently published articles (Horn, 2014; Loveless, March 2014) about personalized learning point to concerns that the personalization trend would lead to students learning only what they are ready for, completely at their own pace, rather than striving to learn a common body of knowledge that all students must learn at a certain time. This concern is real, considering that a number of adaptive programs have taken the “learn when ready approach.” However, even the strongest proponents of personalized learning agree that having a common body of knowledge is important and even critical to students’ future success in society. And we must remember that while the personalized one-to-one tutor and student model is student-centered, it is also thoroughly facilitator-driven. With this in mind, the more effective approach would be to strategically combine the benefits of facilitator flexibility and control with the personalization afforded by assessment-based adaptive technologies. This makes adaptive programs that are both facilitator-driven and assessment-driven the most effective and desirable in the classroom setting.
3. Continuous Formative Assessments
Personal tutors have an advantage over classroom teachers. Working with a student one-on-one allows the tutor the ability to place all of their attention on that student. A personal tutor is able to continuously “watch over” the student while they work and determine their areas of need. The value and importance of such continuous formative assessments are rarely contested and also amply supported by research. It is just very difficult to implement in a classroom. Fortunately, technology makes formative assessments possible on an ongoing basis and does so without taking either the student or the teacher’s time away from classroom learning.
A number of assessment programs are available in the market offering easy ways for teachers to customize and create assessments for their classrooms. These technologies, however, still require a teacher to take time away from the class period to have the students take the assessments on a periodic basis. Newer advances in technology provide the benefit of collecting data while students are working. Just like a tutor, such a program can provide teachers with critical information about the needs of each and every student on an ongoing basis. This type of continuous data collection is a critical element to personalizing learning.
4. Granular Student Knowledge Data
Success in math requires cumulative knowledge. Solving single math problems often requires the student to leverage multiple prerequisite skills and concepts. With this in mind, personal math tutors are constantly on the lookout for granular information, trying to understand, through observation, “why” a student is having trouble.
A number of assessment-based adaptive programs have been developed over the years, providing helpful data to teachers about how long the student has spent working on the program, which problems they have gotten right or wrong, and which skills a student has mastered (Waters, 2014). The problem is that this data is often not sufficient for teachers to actually be able to see each student’s learning gaps. They may see that a student has gotten a certain problem wrong or is having trouble with a specific standard, but how would the teacher know “why” that student is having trouble with that problem?
Personal tutors watch how students are solving a problem and ask probing questions to determine exactly which concepts or skills are causing that student problems. And it is precisely this kind of granularity of assessment that is needed in an assessment-based adaptive program. Knowre is unique in that it is able to provide such data, as it is only with this type of granular knowledge data that teachers will be able to see “why” a student is having trouble and begin the work of addressing each student’s needs.
5. Personalized Instruction and Review
Once armed with the data, a personal tutor will take many different approaches to addressing a student’s learning gaps. Programs like Knowre offer many different ways to support the student just like a personal tutor. When a student is having trouble solving a specific problem, students first need to know that they are solving the problem incorrectly. And although this may seem obvious, much of the time when students are working in their textbooks they have to wait until they have completed all of the lesson problems to know how they did.
Once students know they have gotten a problem incorrect, it isn’t effective for their tutor, or a technology program for that matter, to simply show the student how to solve the problem. A personal tutor instead asks probing questions, scaffolding and walking the student through the problem step by step. This is also done completely at the student’s pace so they are given the opportunity to process each individual step on their own terms. Technology enables students to experience this targeted support for each question that they answer.
Some adapative programs move students down a level if they have answered a question incorrectly. The more effective approach, however, is to support students within the question itself step-by-step, just the way a personal tutor does. Additional support can be provided separately through a set of problems generated as part of a personalized review. Such a targeted review curriculum helps students address the specific gaps in their learning so that they can continue to learn new material without looming knowledge holes that can cause much more serious achievement problems down the road.
6. Engaging Learning Environment
It is no secret that students learn better when they have an engaging teacher. It also helps to have a little something extra to help motivate students by way of rewards. The best teachers know how to present the content to their students so they are engaged and motivated to learn, and it is no surprise that personal tutors are more effective at engaging students simply because they are working with them one-on-one. In fact, the challenge of engaging students not only has to do with adding medals and badges to ‘motivate’ the student, but rather about engaging and delighting the student at the task at hand, that is learning.
There is a great deal that education technology developers can learn from game design when it comes to engaging the individual learner. There is also something to be said about the ways addictive games motivate players to try and retry challenges for a reward. Trying and retrying a problem until mastery through a gamified learning process the way Knowre does, not only teaches learners how to solve that problem, but also helps them enjoy learning by allowing them to challenge themselves, while simultaneously developing persistence, patience and grit, all of which are great life skills that lead to long-term achievement.
One of the perks of receiving constant feedback from a personal tutor is that students begin to develop ownership over their own learning which in turn yields higher results. The student’s achievement is held accountable by the teacher and the student in turn feels motivated. Research shows that students perform better when they feel that they have more support from their teachers and parents (Levpuscek & Zupancic, 2009) and when a teacher is able to respond to every student with a clear understanding of their needs. Through the help of technology-based tools such as Knowre, students will no longer feel as if they are just a face amongst a crowd of students and be more motivated to take ownership over their learning.
In prototyping and developing Knowre over the years, we brought our collective expertise about personalizing learning and made every effort to apply our know-how to our cloud-based adaptive mathematics curriculum. The power of technology enables us to make personalized learning more efficient, affordable, and scalable, and we are passionate about continuing to develop the most personalized and engaging educational solution to each and every student around the world.