A ‘Customized’ Approach to Student Learning

As teachers, we must seek to move beyond traditional, prescriptive classrooms and instead, utilize tools and techniques that meet students where they are at right now—tools and techniques that make learning accessible, meaningful, and fun.

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Not too long ago, my four boys went outside, disappeared for a couple of hours, and then returned home in a heated debate over some mysterious eggs that they had discovered at the edge of a pond located a short distance from our house.  Despite the fact tPONDhat our home lies nearly 1,000 miles inland, the youngest boy insisted that that the eggs were from a crocodile.  His hope was to get a hold of a few hatchlings, raise them to full maturity, and train them to keep intruders out of our yard.    While his older brothers both scoffed at the ‘croc theory,’ they could not come to an agreement about what type of eggs they had  actually found.  One of them insisted that they had been left by a turtle, but the oldest brother argued vehemently that turtles usually buried their eggs…so it was more likely that a snake or a bird was the culprit.

For days they sought to uncover everything they could about various animals in the area.  They photographed the eggs, showed them to everyone they knew, debated, and—in their own words—are now looking for an ‘egg-spert’ to settle it once and for all.  The ‘egg incident,’ as my wife and I now refer to it, reminded us both of the impassioned, deep learning that often transpires when young people are permitted to explore their own interests on their own terms.  But this event has also caused me to reflect on the need to do something similar in the classroom—to transform traditional learning practices into more customized learning experiences where students are encouraged to employ choice and self-regulation in their own studies.

By definition, customized learning seeks to gear classroom content, instruction, and other aspects of learning towards individual students, their unique interests, and past learning experiences (Hattie, 2009).  As of late, a multitude of research findings have underscored the importance of learning activities that encourage student control over the learning process (Ewen, & Topping, 2012; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010).  While student characteristics such as learning styles have long been recognized as factors that may affect learning (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004; Felder & Silverman, 1988; Keefe, 1979), the use of other individual differences between students to guide instruction is largely still viewed as an “innovation” in education (Raman & Nedungadi, 2012).  According to Horizon Report (2011), the real potential of a personalized approach to learning lies in teachers’ exploration of ways to customize curriculum, instruction, and even assessment in ways that differ from person to person, and student to student.

It is no small coincidence that some of the most popular tools amongst young people outside of school, such as video games, are successful largely due to their ability to extend control and choice to learners through customization of play (Chandler, 2013). In the world of X-boxes and Play Stations, customization means that players are able to adjust the game to accommodate their own interests, style, and objectives. Gee (2007) observed that classrooms adopting this principle would allow students to discover their favored learning styles and to try new ones without fear. In the act of customizing their own learning, students would learn a good deal about their own thinking, reflection, and ways of solving problems.

I recently came across a free teaching tool called Actively Learn that makes it simpler than ever for teachers to customize text-based assignments in ways that make reading more accessible to students.   The tool enhances reading passages with ‘layers,’ or combinations of embedded, common-core aligned questioScreen Shot 2013-07-26 at 9.35.31 AMns, images, notes, and even multimedia like audio and video clips to help provide students with contextual information.   My own students and I tried it out, and really found it quite easy to use.  They particularly enjoyed some of the quasi-collaborative features that allowed them to view and comment on the responses of other students after answering questions on their own.

On the teacher side of things, I was able to use pre-loaded texts from the system or could upload my own.  When the students had finished, I had the option of manually reviewing student responses or could have the tool grade it for me.  What I really was impressed by, however, was the well-developed analytics tool that allowed me to measure with precision how my students performed on specific types of literacy tasks.  A complete video demonstration of the tool can be found here.

With or without tools like Actively Learn, however, we as teachers can do more to customize learning and to make it increasingly accessible to students.  For example, not too long ago, I observed a ninth grade math teacher who started class by asking her students to help her determine how many stars exist in the known universe. She explained that before looking at any formulas or equations used by other mathematicians, she wanted to hear how her students might go about solving the problem and insisted that there were likely several valid approaches. Students were given the option of working alone or with others, and then worked to formulate responses. The class period was spent sharing, evaluating, and revising various approaches created by students.

The following day, students were asked to self-select a station where they could review the theories of accomplished scientists either by listening, watching, or reading excerpts of commentaries by various astronomers and mathematicians. Students then worked at their stations to discuss and critique the various theoretical approaches. The instructor pointed out that the experts in the field utilized different approaches to solving the problem, and that many disagreed on the estimated number of stars. In this way, her students learned that this activity’s design was not to achieve a single “right” answer in mathematics, but rather to pose questions, explore, analyze, and develop the ability to reason. Be it in math or other content areas, teachers can work to create opportunities for reflective learning, developing strategies, and selecting learning styles appropriate to specific learning tasks (Coffield et al., 2004).

Regardless of which approach we take in our attempts to personalize student learning, there exists a great need for teachers to spend more time and energy learning through the eyes of the students and to design pedagogy that capitalizes on their interest and readiness to learn (Hattie, 2009).  The development and implementation of customized learning and personalized pedagogy takes time, but will be well worth it.  Educating today’s young people requires us to really get to know our students—their interests, strengths, and approaches to learning—and to use this information to customize the learning that takes place inside of our classrooms.  While we cannot provide a pond and mysterious eggs for every young person in our schools, we can work more conscientiously to personalize learning.  As teachers, we must seek to move beyond traditional, prescriptive classrooms and instead, utilize tools and techniques that meet students where they are at right now—tools and techniques that make learning accessible, meaningful, and fun.



Chandler, C. (2013). The Use of Game Dynamics to Enhance Curriculum and Instruction: What Teachers Can Learn from the Design of Video Games. Journal Of Curriculum And Instruction, 6(2). Retrieved July 23, 2013, from http://www.joci.ecu.edu/index.php/JoCI/article/view/226

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre http://www.lsneducation.org.uk.er.lib.k-state.edu/research/reports/.

Ewen, M., & Topping, K. J. (2012). Personalised learning for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Educational Psychology in Practice, 28(3), 221-239.

Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning styles and teaching styles in engineering education. Engineering Education, 78(7), 674–681.

Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. New York, NY: P. Lang.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Horizon Report, New Media Consortium (2011). http://www.nmc.org/publications/2011-horizon-report. Retrieved Oct 2011.

Keefe, J. W. (1979). Learning style: An overview. In National association of secondary school principals (Ed.), Student learning styles: Diagnosing and prescribing programs (pp. 1–17). Reston, Virginia: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. (2010). Personalised and self regulated learning in the web 2.0 era: International exemplars of innovative pedagogy using social software. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(1), 28-43.

Raman, R., & Nedungadi, P. (2012). Modelling diffusion of a personalized learning framework. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60(4), 585-600.