Individualized Learning

Individualized Learning

Driving Question: How can we create high-quality accelerated
learning experiences that target the need of every student?


When students are in different places on their learning journeys, they need different things from us at different times. While whole group instruction driven by a deep understanding of the content and regular formative assessment is a start, it’s not enough. True learning acceleration requires targeted individualized learning.

This section of the PAL will offer

  • A brief overview of the research on what individualized learning is and why it’s crucial for learning acceleration
  • Curated tips for individualized learning at the classroom and school levels
  • A primer on high-quality tutoring
  • Links to additional resources for your review

What Is Individualized Learning? Why is it Important for Learning Acceleration?

Diagnostic and formative assessments are a powerful tool for showing us where students are along with the learning progression towards grade-level instructional goals. The act of measuring alone, however, isn’t enough to make improvements. It is what we do with that data that matters. What those interventions are, and how they are delivered, are crucial for learning acceleration.


We know students benefit most from a mastery learning approach that provides them with high-quality, meaningful work that is tailored to their current readiness levels. They need to spend significant time working just at the edge of their zone of proximal development with support, feedback, and opportunities to try again to truly learn something deeply.  Since not all students in our classrooms are learning at the same rate or in the same way, we need to build in opportunities for individualized learning that are driven not by pacing guides, but by learning progressions. We can use the data from formative assessments coupled with knowledge of key content and learning progressions to create these just-in-time learning experiences to accelerate learning for our students. 


There are several different ways to structure these individualized learning experiences both in the classroom including creating flexible small groups, stations, and online personalized learning (See more below about these models). Teachers cannot do this work alone, however. True personalization requires schools to take an all-hands-on-deck approach by rethinking the school day and staffing models.  Many schools already have systems such as MTSS, RTI, and BARR that can use this data to determine which students are succeeding and which need additional interventions. Utilizing individualized learning opportunities at all levels of these models in systematic ways is a powerful whole-system learning acceleration approach. One learning we gained from the COVID-19 pandemic is that there are many ways to effectively organize learning for students. Figuring out how to bring in high-quality tutoring (see below), create intervention blocks during the day, and organize other school-wide interventions is something we now know we can do and that is very helpful for many students.  

Curated Tips for Classroom-Level Individualization

  • Build support into the architecture of classrooms. Even before knowing students individually, it is still possible to anticipate what students might need to succeed—in terms of classroom environment, social-emotional learning, and academic instruction—and build those into the architecture of instruction from the beginning. Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to structure learning that will intentionally support all students. 
  • Follow the tenets of differentiated instruction. Differentiation requires teachers to gather regular data about students to plan tailored instructional adjustments. Differentiation theory tells us that teachers should hold constant instructional goals and high expectations for all students, but can and should provide differentiation in a variety of ways to help students meet those goals. These factors include content (the knowledge, understanding, and skills students need to learn), process (how students are learning about the content), and product (the ways students show what they know, understand,  and can do). and time (the length of time students have to reach outcomes). Teachers can differentiate by considering students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles. Differentiation considers what all students in the class will need as well as some students and individuals and how each student will get what they need over the course of the lesson or unit. For more on differentiation, check out Key elements of Differentiated Instruction)
  • Utilize small group instruction. CDE is promoting small group learning as an important aspect of learning acceleration from PK-12th grade. To successfully utilize this model, teachers use their regularly collected formative data about student learning needs to provide target instruction to students working on a similar challenge. The most effective small group instruction is flexible–pulling students together as needed to address a need–and not tracked into permanent groups. The teacher can then provide short, highly-tailored instruction to best meet students where they are, build background knowledge, or accelerate the learning of those ready to move forward more quickly. Consider how you can use paraeducators, volunteers, student teachers, and other staff to create simultaneous small groups. Here are a few examples from different grade and content areas to explore:
    • Study groups are based on research from Jo Boaler. These consist of 3-4 students and help expose students to different perspectives on any given subject. Students are able to learn by seeing different ways of approaching a problem. Study groups can be organized in the classroom with an assigned classroom task. Often these groups will organize to meet outside of school to complete a project or to study for an exam. Here is a resource on study groups.
    • In Mississippi, the K-3 reading program maps out a learning progression that includes whole group, small group, and individual work. 
    • The Da Vinci Connect High School uses office hours and study groups to accelerate learning. Office hours are intended to engage students in a small-group or one-on-one student-teacher ratio either during class or during other periods of the day. This allows students to participate more freely and openly with the teacher. It is also an opportunity for students and teachers to get to know each other. 
  • Employ blended learning. Blended learning combines an online curriculum and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods.  In many iterations, students learn content online at their own pace and then work with others to practice using that new knowledge. Creating playlists from sources like Kahn Academy and other sites can help expedite the creation of this material. Moving content online allows students to review challenging materials several times or move ahead more quickly when they are ready. Blended learning is not online asynchronous learning because it requires the presence of the teacher to help facilitate learning,  practice, and collaboration. Here are a few example playlists for your consideration:
    • Valor Collegiate in Tennessee individualizes math practice through self-directed and self-paced online playlists housed in Google Docs. Each playlist is focused on a grade-level math standard, allowing students to self-select a targeted playlist based on their individual needs.  
    • Cisco Independent School District district uses ​​an individualized assignment chart that students work through at their own pace. You can read more about this type of playlist here). 
  • Consider station rotations. While traditionally an elementary school model, stations are equally powerful practice for middle and high school students and block scheduling at the secondary level provides an ideal amount of time for this model. Station rotations involve  students working in small groups that rotate through a series of learning experiences guided by the teacher, working in collaboration with one another and/or working alone using online resources.  Station rotations may include both small group instruction as well as online or blended learning elements (see previous bullets).  Here is a sample rotation from Blended Learning Universe. 
  • Try student agency/independent learning. This model can only be successful when supported and front-loaded by strong intentional educators. Learning independently can be challenging, even for the brightest and most motivated students. However, it has never been more important to develop this ability than today. The ability to be a self-directed learner has been a major differentiator of success in distance learning, highlighting the need to develop skills like goal-setting, researching, progress monitoring, self-management, and communication, to name a few. Read this report by the Learning Accelerator and look in CCEE’s Field Guide for more information about developing student agency. Consider coupling this model with blended learning to allow students some ability to co-create path, pace, and place. Blended learning can be extremely effective when done well, creating more opportunities for targeted instruction and practice of skills, concepts, or ideas that students can work on independently.
  • Let students choose. An important strategy for building student agency is to provide students with some control over how and with whom they learn. While not always possible or appropriate, agency is a crucial component in developing student stamina during learning acceleration and beyond and is promoted by differentiation experts as well. Allowing students to choose the way they show their learning, or being able to select from several options for learning about content on a choice board are powerful options. Students at Cisco Junior High School can choose from a variety of different options for working with other students. For the most part, students have autonomy in choosing whether they want to work independently, with a partner, or in a group. This autonomy extends to choosing their partners and group members as well. Sometimes teachers intervene, however, when students are not making good choices of partner or group. 

Additional Resources

Curated Tips for School-Level Individualization

  • Connect to tiered systems of support like MTSS, RTI, and BARR. Individualized learning is an intervention that can occur at any level of these support models. Building on data collected in classrooms, teams can design and enact tiered levels of individualization that cross grades and schools. For example, providing targeted instruction in the classroom as described in the previous section might be a tier 1 intervention for all students, such as 9th-grade algebra. At tier 2, students might participate in high-quality tutoring for a specific need like phonics or in  a well-vetted program like Reading Recovery.  At tier 3, students might receive more intensive tutoring or support. 
  • Develop a district-wide blended model. Building and curating individualized learning materials requires a great deal of time, expertise, and work. Consider collaborating with your grade-level, subject-matter, and school teams to build personalized learning options that are aligned with grade-level outcomes and learning progressions,  contain high-quality materials, and can be used across classrooms. For example, Lindsay High School, which serves all grade 9-12 students in Lindsay Unified Public Schools, implemented blended learning in a diverse rural district school with a large population of free and reduced lunch students. The model focuses on high school English and English language learner classes. Core strategies include the implementation of a performance-based system, the ability for students to work across grade levels, customized playlists for learners, learner choice throughout their day/week/year, individual personalized learning time, and a focus on lifelong learning standards (noncognitive skills). You can read more about this work here.

Additional Resources

  • The Aurora Institute’s guide to Getting Started with Personalized Learning (resources for education leaders, teachers, and policymakers looking to redesign K-12 education around student learning with personalized learning and competency education)
  • Thrive Public Schools’ Blended Learning Rubric maps out not only their approach to blended learning but the key pieces needed to be successful within their blended model. It also allows an educator to map our their personal level of mastery and application by assessing themselves within each strand.

Curated Tips for High-Quality Tutoring

Tutoring is a form of teaching, one-on-one or in a small group, toward a specific goal. Tutoring sessions can happen as part of the school day or outside of school hours. By responding to students’ individual needs, complementing the existing curriculum, and supplementing students’ classroom experiences, high-impact tutoring leads to substantial learning gains for students. Tutoring is an unusually effective strategy because it targets each student’s needs within a relationship with a consistent, highly-trained adult. 


As an example of the power of high-quality tutoring, let’s look at this study. Students struggling in reading were placed in either Reading Recovery tutoring alongside classroom instruction or a random group of non-struggling students in that grade and school. The chart on the right shows the results. Because of assessments and individualized teaching focused on meeting students where they are, the struggling readers had gains nearly twice as large as the norm and nearly closed the gap with the average student within the 12-15 weeks of the program.  

A review of 96 randomized control trials further finds tutoring yields large improvements…if done well. So, what goes makes tutoring high-quality? According to research and an article from LPI, effective tutoring includes

  • Consistent intensity. Is provided at least 3 sessions per week for at least 30 minutes over at least a semester, as part of the regular school day or immediately before or after school.
  • Highly qualified tutors. Ensures students are able to build a relationship with a consistent and well-trained and supervised tutor such as a certified classroom teacher, paraprofessional, or teacher candidate. Organizations such as Americorps and #CaliforniansForALL College Corps can be helpful for finding tutors for your organization. Here are two real-world examples:
    • Teachers as tutors: The Los Angeles United School District is paying teachers to serve as outside-of-school tutors providing individualized support to students. In first grade, this work is part of Primary Promise, a program aimed at closing early literacy gaps. Students receive intensive support in small groups during or after school, for a minimum of 10 weeks. You can read more here
    • College students as tutors: The Tennessee Tutoring Corps is using tutoring to help accelerate learning during Covid-19. The goal is to recruit at least 1,000 qualified college student tutors eager to give back to their communities and help prevent summer learning loss among the most vulnerable students.
  • An appropriate teacher-to-student ratio. Early-grade students (pre-K–1) benefit from 1:1 tutoring; students in grades 2–5 benefit from small groups with a tutor-student ratio of 1:3 or 1:4; secondary students benefit from small groups with a tutor-student ratio of no more than 1:4. Reading tutoring tends to be relatively more effective for students in grades pre-K–1, whereas math tutoring tends to be more effective for students in grades 2–5.
  • Targets intervention. Uses ongoing formative assessment data to determine student needs and create continuously targeted intervention instead of being a generic or canned program
  • High-quality curriculum. Using research-based curriculum for tutoring like Reading Recovery, Number Rockets, or ROOTS, and clear implementation guidance for tutors
  • Invests in staff capacity building. Programs provide quality initial training (10 hours, in the best programs, on content and facilitation skills) and ongoing support for tutors as well as providing them with a stipend for their work.

Additional Resources


The Playbook for Accelerating Learning
The Playbook for Accelerating Learning was developed by the California Collaborative for
Educational Excellence for California LEAs in collaboration with technical assistance partners.