Personalized learning, what’s the evidence?

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and the first item in this great news letter will spur some interest I guess. As personalized learning is fast becoming one of the biggest current hypes, the question remains: what’s the evidence. And there is a new big study, but does this study really supplies the evidence,

The National Education Policy Center’s  Think Twice Think Tank Review Project recently reviewed a RAND study on personalized learning.  The RAND study examined the effects of three schoolwide personalized learning initiatives on student achievement to try to find evidence linking specific learning strategies to achievement outcomes.

RAND defined “personalized learning” (PL) as incorporating five specific characteristics including data-supported student goals accessible to teachers and students, and personalized learning of each student’s choice with in-school support and learning outside of school. 

The RAND study compared the MAP reading and math scores of 11,000 students in 62 schools who had been using a personalized learning approach for two years to the scores of students matched at baseline to serve as a comparison. Researchers found higher achievement scores for the PL group, especially in the elementary grades. In addition, the study showed that personalized learners’ scores increased at a greater rate than the nation’s scores. Overall, researchers deemed personalized learning a promising practice. 

Yet the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project disagrees. In a review of the study, Think Tankers felt that the study’s limitations prevented it from demonstrating true evidence of promising practice. First, reviewers noted that only student involvement in analyzing their own data and goal setting was associated with consistent gains. They pointed out that two of the attributes ascribed to the success of personalized learning-flexible learning environments and student grouping-were also used in schools not using personalized learning. They noted that the largest departure from regular classroom practice-competency-based progression-was not used in the majority of the experimental schools, casting doubt on its pertinence. In addition, reviewers were dubious about the generalizability of the findings because 90% of the study schools were charter schools.

Think Tank reviewers concluded that the study suggests there may indeed be personalized practices associated with test score gains, but that the practices in the three experimental models weren’t drastically different than practices in untreated schools. The study’s limitations cast doubt on the models’ generalization. 

There have been some interesting studies which do offer some evidence for a possible impact of personalization in education, although in a more limited sense:

  • This interesting study on accelerated reader and
  • This study on “personalized review“, this is the abstract:

    Human memory is imperfect; thus, periodic review is required for the long-term preservation of knowledge and skills. However, students at every educational level are challenged by an ever-growing amount of material to review and an ongoing imperative to master new material. We developed a method for efficient, systematic, personalized review that combines statistical techniques for inferring individual differences with a psychological theory of memory. The method was integrated into a semester-long middle-school foreign-language course via retrieval-practice software. Using a cumulative exam administered after the semester’s end, we compared time-matched review strategies and found that personalized review yielded a 16.5% boost in course retention over current educational practice (massed study) and a 10.0% improvement over a one-size-fits-all strategy for spaced study.

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