As a broad paradigm of education, the learner-centered paradigm focuses on individual learners and helps them construct their own knowledge (Lambert and McCombs 1998; McCombs 2013). PL is a fearture in the paradigm that has been spotlighted as a way to customize learning for individual learners (McCombs 2008). Our literature review revealed an increasing number of publications related to PL. In Li and Wong (2019)’s systemic review of 179 studies from 2009 to 2018, there was a 120% increase in the number of studies from the 2009 to 2013 period to the 2014–2018 period. Our search of literature after 2019 revealed exponentially increased results. Our reviews showed that although the topics were becoming more diversified than before, most of the articles were focused on teaching guidelines and implementing emerging technologies such as learning analytics or augmented reality for PL (e.g., Lin et al. 2013; Ma et al. 2016; Maseleno et al. 2018), rather than on PL’s academic outcomes and its relation to standardized testing. Only a handful of studies investigated PL practice in K-12 or its relationship with academic achievement, especially at the national level: two in the U.K. (Sebba and Britain 2007; Underwood et al. 2007) and two in the U.S. (Gross et al. 2018; WestEd 2006), possibly due to the difficulty of obtaining large-scale comprehensive national data related to academic achievement, particularly in personalized learning.
The U.K. Department for Education launched the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners for England in 2004 to promote PL practices from elementary through post-secondary institutions (Department for Education and Skills 2004). Funded by the U.K. Department for Education, two national studies were conducted: Sebba and Britain (2007) and Underwood et al. (2007). These two studies used a large-scale national data set to reveal comprehensive aspects of PL, including academic testing and achievement. It is worthwhile reviewing closely how these rare studies were conducted to compare PL practices between the U.S. and the U.K.
First, Sebba and Britain (2007) investigated K-12 schools’ PL approaches based on Miliband (2006) five components of PL. Miliband (2006) previously identified the five components of PL (1) assessment for learning, (2) effective teaching and learning, (3) curriculum entitlement and choice, (4) school organization, and (5) beyond the classroom—by utilizing a survey method and case studies, which became the basis of Sebba and Britain (2007) analysis.
Sebba and Britain (2007) examined how schools adopted PL initiated by the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners in a nationally representative sample of K-12 schools in the U.K. A stratified sample by school size and region was drawn. Of the total of 2,838 schools, 347 provided valid responses, giving a response rate of 12.2 percent. After the survey, 13 case studies were undertaken in schools with promising PL practice by collecting documentation, conducting interviews with managers, teachers, teaching assistants, students, parents and governors, and observing lessons and activities.
Sebba and Britain (2007) found that many schools were using the following learner-centered instructional approaches: collaborative learning (88%), inquiry-based learning (69%), teaching to preferred learning styles (66%), encouragement of autonomy and choices (64%), and classes grouped by ability (41%). Regarding assessment, more than 80% of the schools responded that they generally engaged in providing individual feedback (94%), individual setting of targets (92%), self and peer assessment (86%), and academic tracking (81%). Also, 45% of schools utilized technology in assessing students. In contrast, in their case studies, they found that assessment was not consistently embedded in learning in most of the case-study schools.
Sebba and Britain (2007) further showed that across all types of schools, teachers indicated that the following factors positively affect academic achievement: ongoing assessment for learning, target setting for individual learning, tracking student progress, and self and peer assessment. Primary teachers mentioned small-group, targeted, intervention strategies such as catch up and booster programs. Teachers in a few secondary schools mentioned vocational or alternative pathways and curriculum flexibility. Sebba and Britain (2007) study was useful in identifying effective instructional and assessment strategies for PL.
Another national study on PL conducted in the U.K, Impact 2007: Personalizing Learning with Technology, was commissioned by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency utilizing a survey and case studies (Underwood et al., 2007). The purpose of the study was to gather information about perceptions of the progress in personalization of teachers and students as a result of the Five Year Strategy.
Underwood et al. (2007) used survey data from 67 schools. Those schools were mostly evenly distributed in terms of school levels (primary and secondary), technology maturity (high and low), and location (rural and urban). Multilevel modeling was applied to examine relationships between PL practice and various other factors. Results suggest that primary teachers were more encouraged and responded more positively about practicing PL than secondary teachers. Mathematics teachers were more negative about practicing PL than teachers in other subjects. Interestingly, students in academically better performing secondary schools tended not to perceive a strong personalizing agenda in their schools.
The case studies by Underwood et al. (2007) entailed school visits, two classroom observations, and interviews with participating teachers in a representative sample of 24 schools. Instructional activities observed included using project-based learning, computer-supported collaborative learning, computer-based instruction, and learning beyond the national curriculum. Assessment activities included online self-assessment, individual target setting, providing support to meet the target, and monitoring students’ own individual performance.
In the U.S., WestEd (2006) conducted a national study using a case study method for the U.S. Department of Education on the practice of exceptional charter high schools. This study was not conducted to investigate PL practice in those schools per se, but some of the common themes found in the schools were aligned with PL practices.
Based on recommendations from their advisory group and review of achievement data, they identified 70 charter schools, which were narrowed down to 26 that demonstrated high academic performance and increasing achievement with a high portion of low-income or minority population of students. Finally, eight schools were selected based on demographic variation, promising practices, geographic location, and achievement data.
A one- or two-day site visit was made to each school. In each school, informal observations throughout the school and interviews were conducted with students, parents, teachers, board members, administrators and school partners. Also, documents, including school schedules, sample assessments, lesson plan forms, teacher planning protocols, newsletters, application forms, brochures, charter plans, and report cards, were analyzed.
WestEd (2006) observed four prominent PL features across the schools: (1) providing real-world experiences to students, (2) teaching for mastery, (3) developing self-regulation and meta-cognitive skills, and (4) assessment-data-driven teaching. At the schools, students were encouraged to broaden their experiences and learn beyond the classroom. Students were engaged in various real-world experiences, including working as interns, traveling to different cultures, organizing school events, and attending college courses, which provided relevant and meaningful learning experiences.
Teaching for mastery entailed the expectation that students reach mastery to move on to the next academic level. Remediation or acceleration was given to students depending on their mastery levels. For example, at one school, ninth graders had four opportunities to pass proficiency exams in reading, writing, and math, and when not meeting the proficiency levels, they were retained and additional academic support was provided. Although extensive tutoring and academic support were available, there was great awareness and emphasis on becoming an independent, self-regulated learner, and teachers helped students develop their study skills; thus developing self-regulation and metacognitive skills was the third component.
Finally, assessment data-driven teaching provides the standards and guidelines for personalized teaching. Teaching to mastery requires ongoing assessment and data-driven teaching. In the schools, lessons were revised continuously according to students’ needs identified by assessments. For example, at one school, teachers used assessments to understand student needs and incorporated the results into the instructional planning process and decision-making process at the school level. For instance, when there were students with a low level of achievement in math, two additional tutors were added to the math classroom.
Another U.S. study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provided a more general picture of PL in K-12 education in the U.S. (Gross et al. 2018). It surveyed national samples of students and teachers as well as teachers in the schools funded by the foundation to transform to a PL system. A total of 908 teachers from 38 schools responded.
The study’s (Gross et al. 2018) results suggest that nearly 80% of elementary and middle school teachers indicated a low level of implementation of competency-based student progress. However, 91% reported having one-on-one or small-group discussion with some or all students. Only a third of students reported that they set their own learning goals at least half the time. This is in line with only 19% to 29% of teachers reporting that most of their students set their unique learning goals. Also, most teachers were reluctant to give students control of their learning in terms of pacing, content, and learning activities. In interviews, teachers mentioned pressure to meet learning standards as a major concern that inhibited the transition.
Summary of literature review
Our literature review sheds light on some interesting yet contradictory findings about PL practice. In the U.K, high-performing schools were reluctant to transition to a PL system (Underwood et al. 2007). In the U.S., most teachers studied had not yet implemented competency-based student progress or allowed students to take control of their own learning, because of the pressure of meeting academic standards, according to a national survey (Gross et al. 2018). However, some teachers in the U.K. perceived some features related to competency-based student progress to be positively related to academic achievement, such as ongoing assessment for learning, target setting for individual learning, tracking student progress, and self and peer assessment, according to the national study by Sebba and Britain (2007). Also, case studies of successful charter schools reported PL practices as key characteristics of outperforming schools including providing real-world experiences to students, teaching for mastery, and developing self-regulation (WestEd 2006).
While a few national-level U.S and U.K. research studies have enlightened some aspects of PL practices, there is still a dearth of research with regard to which PL practices and technology uses can lead to high performance in academic testing. With the pressure to achieve immediate results in external measures such as standardized tests (La Velle and Flores 2018), educators, including teachers and administrators, need more systematic research evidence that demonstrates the relationship between various features of PL practice and academic achievement in schools. To address the knowledge gap, this study aims to draw evidence by comparing academically high-performing and low-performing learner-centered schools in the U.S regarding their differences in PL practice and technology use.
Conceptual framework for PL practice
Lee (2014) suggested five essential features that serve as design principles for PL seen in Fig. 1: (1) a personalized learning plan (PLP) that takes individual differences into account, (2) competency-based student progress (CBSP) rather than time-based progress, (3) criterion-referenced assessment (CRA) rather than norm-referenced assessment for ongoing formative and summative assessment, (4) project- or problem-based learning (PBL), and (5) multi-year mentoring (MYM) of students by a teacher or a mentor. We used this as our conceptual framework for PL practice, as it includes elements for instruction, assessment, and system structure for PL.
A PLP takes into account individual differences or needs such as career goals, characteristics, interests, and academic mastery. Creating PLPs allow learning to be relevant, interesting and appropriate to the learners, which can make learning effective and engaging (American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychology in Education 1993; Bransford et al. 2000). The PL Framework by LEAP Innovations (2020) includes learning towards personal learning goals based on a deep understanding of the learner’s academic needs, interests, strengths and other characteristics.
CBSP refers to individual student progress based on one’s academic mastery, in contrast to the current practice of time-based student progress (Software & Information Industry Association 2010; U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). This is a key element in the educational reform movement for PL (Miliband 2006; Software & Information Industry Association 2010; U.S. Department of Education, n.d.), and several PL frameworks include this component as an essential feature of PL (LEAP Innovations 2020; Miliband 2006; Software & Information Industry Association 2010; WestEd 2006). Carroll (1963) argued that having all students spend the same amount of time would result in a high correlation between students’ aptitude and achievement, accordingly failing students with low aptitude levels. The U.S. Department of Education (2012b) has recognized the two-sigma problem that Bloom (1984) identified, and has argued that CBSP can be implemented at affordable costs on a large scale with the recent advances in technology (U.S. Department of Education 2012b).
CRA evaluates students’ mastery of a certain skill or competency, whereas norm-referenced assessment reports a student’s performance in comparison to a group of similar students (Thorndike and Thorndike-Christ 2010). Ongoing formative assessment has been emphasized as a way to understand students’ learning needs and track students’ progress towards learning goals (American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychology in Education 1993; LEAP Innovations 2020; Miliband 2006; Sturgis and Patrick 2010). CRA is more appropriate for the purposes of ongoing assessment than a norm-referenced assessment as it helps identify learning needs and determine mastery of the current topic (Sturgis and Patrick 2010).
PBL is a learner-centered instructional approach that engages learners in an authentic, complex, ill-structured, and open-ended inquiry. PBL has been recommended as an effective way to customize instruction for individual learners (Software & Information Industry Association 2010; U.S. Department of Education 2010), and several PL frameworks include PBL or real-world, inquiry-driven experiences as an essential component (LEAP Innovations 2020; Miliband 2006; Software & Information Industry Association 2010; WestEd 2006). PBL can be implemented in various ways individually or in groups with various student activities and assessment methods (Bell 2010; Duch et al. 2001; Gijbels et al. 2005; Hmelo-Silver 2004; Jonassen 2000, 2004; Savery 2006; Şendağ and Ferhan Odabaşı 2009; Wirkala and Kuhn 2011).
MYM refers to teachers mentoring the same student for more than one year. Major benefits include (1) the teacher knows the students well enough to take their individual needs into account as emphasized in the APA principles (American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychology in Education 1993) and (2) the teacher can build a closer relationship with their students (George et al. 1987) as deemed critical by LEAP Innovations (2020).
Conceptual framework for a technology system
Reigeluth et al. (2015) proposed a conceptual framework for a technology system that supports PL, entitled Personalized Integrated Educational System (PIES). The four major functions of PIES are (1) recordkeeping, (2) planning, (3) instruction, and (4) assessment.
The recordkeeping function collects student data, including academic data such as masteries of certain topics and nonacademic data such as interests, characteristics, backgrounds, career goals and more to inform the development of PLPs. The planning function helps teachers develop a PLP based on student data collected by suggesting projects or educational resources, appropriate timelines, and teammates to work with. The instruction function is where learning takes place based on the PLP. Teachers can share information about projects and provide resources. Students can explore resources, create products, use computer-based instruction, and share resources with other students. The assessment function allows teachers to assess learning outcomes by testing different content, providing feedback, and certifying attainments (Fig. 2).
The four functions are seamlessly integrated to effectively and efficiently support PL. Students’ data in the recordkeeping function feed into the planning function to prepare a PLP for individual students. Based on the plans, the students engage in a project with instructional support through an instructional overlay. In the instructional overlay, ongoing formative assessment takes place and the mastery data are added into the recordkeeping function. Thus, this study addresses which kinds of personalized learning practices and technology use are different between academically high-performing and low-performing learner-centered schools.