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Personalized Learning Boosts Student Engagement, Reduces Pandemic Learning Loss

Hite: Case studies from Florida and California show the benefits of celebrating each young person's individuality and providing tailored support.

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In recent years, personalized, competency-based learning has gained traction as an innovative approach to better prepare today’s learners for what’s next. This method has been used successfully in hundreds of districts and schools across the U.S., and more and more states are putting policies in place to support a transition toward more innovative teaching and learning practices.

That’s because personalized, competency-based learning offers a promising alternative to traditional instruction and has been shown to help accelerate academic gains. Teachers can design personalized learning experiences that target instruction to address specific skills while ensuring that students meet the same academic standards and learning objectives that they would in a traditional classroom.

By better understanding each student’s level of understanding and need, educators can minimize the potential for compounding gaps in essential knowledge and skills. This is critically important, because if students haven’t firmly grasped foundational concepts from years before, their path to proficiency is obstructed, and they are bound to struggle.

In mathematics, for instance, students must first understand how to multiply decimals, which is taught in fifth grade, before they can confidently calculate percentages in seventh.

Miami-Dade Public Schools recognized this early in the COVID-19 pandemic and implemented a that utilized need-driven decision-making to ensure that resources reached individual students at the appropriate levels.

Rather than following rigid timelines and lesson plans, Miami-Dade dedicated extra time to foundational competence. The district developed and implemented strategies to evaluate students based on their level of academic achievement in meeting essential standards in both their current and previous grades.

As a result, while other school districts have struggled to recover from pandemic-related learning loss, has returned to pre-pandemic proficiency with minimal disruption. On the 2023 statewide accountability assessments, which are designed to measure progress toward critical learning benchmarks, Miami-Dade surpassed the state in the proportion of students scoring at grade level or higher in both English and math.

This highlights the importance of utilizing innovative educational strategies to meet students where they are. When young people succeed in school, they become more motivated to explore new topics — and that’s important. A new report from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation surveyed over 1,000 students, ages 12 to 18, and found that less than half felt motivated to attend school.

Too often, traditional education falls short in helping students see relevance to their everyday lives. Project-based learning is an example of a competency-based learning experience that integrates knowledge with practical applications. This strategy cultivates critical thinking skills that are essential for success beyond the classroom, while helping students deepen their understanding of core concepts by using what they know to solve real-world problems.

For example, a study of a middle school project-based showed, on average, that students performed higher than a matched comparison group on state English Language Arts assessments by 8 percentage points in year two and 10 percentage points in year three. By aligning competencies with academic standards, educators can ensure that students receive a rigorous education that prepares them for academic achievement.

The effectiveness of competency-based methods is evident in performance-based schools like the . Lindsey Unified ranked No. 1 in English Language Arts growth on the 2019 Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium achievement test when compared with 63 similar districts, rising from the 33rd to the 87th percentile. By coupling core content with skills like communication, teamwork and adaptability, Lindsey Unified equips its students with both the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Lindsay Unified is not alone. A RAND study of that participated in a personalized learning intervention found that after two years, students who started in the bottom quartile demonstrated greater gains than peers with similar demographics, prior academic performance and socioeconomic status that were not part of the intervention groups. The 32 schools were located predominantly in urban areas and served large numbers of minority students from low-income families.

Personalized learning cannot improve student outcomes without a major shift in mindset and significant changes in teaching methods. There is no quick fix or simple solution. Education must be reimagined in a way that celebrates each student’s individuality and considers how factors outside of school influence what happens within them. By implementing systems that provide tailored, differentiated support, learning can be made relevant and engaging for students.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the RAND study and provides financial support to ͼ. Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to ͼ.

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