Personalized learning is a topic on the minds of many educators. The Kansas State Department of Education names it as a key component of comprehensive school redesign efforts, and there’s no shortage of technology products claiming to help educators implement it in their classrooms. But what is personalized learning, exactly? And why do so many feel it’s important? Let’s take a look.

KSDE definition

KSDE defines personalized learning as “instruction tailored to each student based on the student’s strengths, needs and interests.” Through this approach, teachers are to be able to:

  • Understand each student’s personal and academic background, strengths and needs.
  • Help each student develop ownership of their learning.
  • Provide students targeted instruction, practice and support in areas where they are struggling.
  • Help students communicate effectively.
  • Help students learn how to learn.
  • KSDE documents further explain that “students will have the choice to learn in the time they need, at the pace they need, in the setting in which they learn best and on a path that matches their interests and passions.”

To understand what this looks like in practice, we turned to consultants and teachers who are using personalized learning every day.

Personalized, individualized, or differentiated?

“Individualized, differentiated, and personalized learning are sometimes used synonymously even though they are completely different types of learning and instruction,” said Shannon Fisher, an education consultant with Orion Education & Training who specializes in personalized learning. “The biggest difference between the three is that personalized learning is student-driven whereas the other two are teacher-driven.”

Individualization involves educators determining specific supports that students need to succeed, while differentiation is about incorporating different learning strategies into lessons.

The key to personalized learning, according to Fisher and many other leaders in the field, is giving students agency–the power to choose, at least to some extent, how they would like to learn.

For Lori Jensen Wilson, the importance of personalized learning can be traced to what motivates human behavior. She points to research on motivation from Daniel Pink, who posits that three major factors drive us: autonomy (the desire to have agency over our own lives); mastery (the drive to be really good at something important); and purpose (feeling like what we do matters in the big picture).

“Personalized learning offers that autonomy,” Jensen Wilson said.

Getting started with personalized learning

Fisher says many teachers and administrators find the idea of personalized learning overwhelming simply because they don’t know where to start.

“It is important for schools to understand that personalized learning is a process that takes time to develop,” Fisher said. “It also can look different from classroom to classroom because it is student driven.”

Fisher says the best way to start is by identifying types of personalized learning that are already occurring.

“Are students setting goals and reflecting on their work?” Fisher said. “Are students engaged in project-based learning? Sometimes teachers are personalizing learning—they just don’t realize it.”

Case study: Michaela Gray, Winfield Middle School

One teacher pioneering the use of personalized learning in her district is Michaela Gray, a second-year educator at Winfield Middle School who teaches 7th grade science.

Gray started by identifying four styles of learning she felt confident implementing in her lessons, and began introducing them, one-by-one, in the fall. The styles were traditional textbook-and-paper instruction; small-group, teacher-facilitated discussions; independent research projects; and self-paced, computerized learning.

When the students came back from winter break, they were asked to choose which style they liked best and try it out during the spring semester. Gray says students had to stick with a learning style for the duration of the lesson, but they were able to change styles in between lessons if they found that one wasn’t working for them.

“Toward the end, almost everyone was successful with their final two or three projects.”

Here’s the process Gray used to create each lesson:

  1. Read through the source material and take notes.
  2. Use notes to create a slide presentation.
  3. Use PearDeck or a similar product to turn the slide presentation into an online lesson.
  4. Based on notes, create an outline of what should be included in a research project.
  5. Use notes as basis of small group discussions.
  6. Create a generalized rubric usable for research essays, presentations, or other student products.

“The beginning is a little more work,” Gray said. “You already have a lesson set out, so that’s most of the work done for you. The extra work would be tailoring to each learning type.”

Gray said the extra effort is more than worthwhile.

“After I moved to personalized learning, I realized I felt closer to my students, they were more engaged, and retention levels went way up,” Gray said. “At the end, I think 98% of feedback was positive. I had an overwhelmingly positive response with this and they felt they wished most of their classes would be like this.”

Reach out

If you’d like to dive into the world of personalized learning but aren’t sure where to start, the state’s network of education service centers can help. Visit to find a service center near you.

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