Personalized Learning: A vision we can all aspire to

by Julia Rutledge, M.S.

When people ask me why I decided to pursue my doctorate in educational psychology, I think about an experience I had ten years ago as a student teacher of high school literature. Like many teachers, I had disengaged students. Some would sit in the back of the class and zone out on their iPods, while it seemed almost impossible to get others to raise their hand to participate. I was frustrated that I wasn’t reaching them and knew something in my own practices had to change.

At about the same time I learned of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and decided to play with the idea of differentiating my practice. Instead of keeping that newfound knowledge to myself, I taught my own students about the theory and had them take online tests to determine their “intelligence” strengths and weaknesses. At the end of a unit studying characterization in a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez novella, I used the theory to create seven different assessments – each tied to a different intelligence and all sharing the same objective. Students could choose any option (or create their own) to showcase their understanding.

The response was electric. For the first time, I had every student turn in a high quality assignment by the deadline. Most students chose the option that aligned with their strongest intelligence or interest. Those students at the back of the class unplugged their iPods and turned in CD soundtracks paired with a paper explaining why each song represented a different character in the novella. Other students turned in beautiful mind maps, using their artistic skill to represent the interrelationships between the book’s characters. A couple students who were involved in the school’s drama program performed vignettes of pivotal moments between characters. My cooperating teacher and I were amazed by the variety and richness the students produced.

My assignment was a success not because I had students who were “intelligent” in different ways, but because I gave them a choice. They had an opportunity to represent their understanding in the way that fit them best. By decreasing my control over their processes, my students took on more responsibility – and succeeded. It was because of this experience that I decided to go back to graduate school and study how people learn in innovative learning atmospheres. What I’ve found is that stories like mine happen every day in personalized learning environments, where student interests are valued, where teachers have the freedom to differentiate instruction and assessment, and where the responsibility for learning is an open conversation rather than a prescriptive demand.

Since then, I have continued to research and write about topics that align with the work of the Institute for Personalized Learning. Last year, I was asked to compile an annotated list of references (most of which are academic journals) aimed at providing a brief summary of existing research and steering interest toward additional sources. As part of that project, I also wrote, “Personalized Learning: Practices and Principles from the Learner-Centered Movement,”  an overview of personalized learning for education practitioners and researchers that draws from many of the sources on that list.

The purpose of this paper is to clarify what personalized learning is – and is not – as well as to identify fundamental pedagogical tenets and common classroom practices. The main sections of the paper explore definitions of personalized learning, delve into the role of personal success skills and learner agency, present current trends and case studies, and review pertinent classroom practices.

Ten years ago, changing a single assignment transformed my views on learning and instruction. Becoming a parent has also changed how I view education. Now I also think of my own daughter when studying learning environments. It is my hope that she – and all other children – will have access to personalized learning environments where learning is innovative and interest-based, where she can be active in co-designing her own learning and have opportunities to exercise meaningful choices, and where in-school relationships are paramount and outside interests are valued. That, I believe, is a vision that researchers, practitioners, administrators, and parents can aspire to.

Julia Rutledge is a dissertator in the Learning Sciences program area of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Educational Psychology. She has a masters in Educational Psychology from University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014) and also serves as an undergraduate lecturer in her department. Her dissertation research focuses on personalized learning environments’ measurement practices of students’ noncognitive skills development. Connect with Julia at


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