Differentiated Learning

Differentiated Learning

Programs and tools for automatically or manually tailoring instruction by selecting content and presentation methods (lectures, quizzes and games, inquiry-based projects, etc.), corresponding to how the student best learns.


The most "personalized" form of learning involves a student diving into what interests he or she the most and doing it at a pace and in a context that makes sense for them. (Sounds like the best graduate program in the world!) For younger students who are still discovering what interests them--and how they learn--personalized learning also mean how education is delivered to them.

The most "personalized" learning experience for anyone would involve a tutor for every learner. Good teachers skillfully adapt what they're teaching to their students' interests and abilities.

When it's not possible to provide a great 1:1 instructor for every learner, technology can play a crucial role.

Many fans of education technology believe that specialized technology is the most effective way to deliver "differentiated" instruction that is "individualized," or "personalized" to a large number of learners, with diverse backgrounds and learning styles. There's a lot packed into that sentence because those terms get used interchangeably. At least according to experts, each of those terms has a subtle difference.

Here are the definitions proposed in the National Education Technology Plan of 2010:

Individualized learning means instruction is paced to the learning needs of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but students can progress through the material at different speeds according to their learning needs. For example, students might take longer to progress through a given topic, skip topics that cover information they already know, or repeat topics they need more help on.

Differentiated learning means instruction is tailored to the learning preferences of different learners. Learning goals are the same for all students, but the method or approach of instruction varies according to the preferences of each student or what research has found works best for students like them.

Personalized learning means instruction is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary (so personalization encompasses differentiation and individualization).

Source: Karen Cator (edSurge: edition 016); National Education Technology report, page 12.

Teacher-writer Barbara Bray adds more details to these different definitions in the chart she published here. She contends that only personalized learning is truly built around the learning; both differentiate and individualized learning remain teacher-center experiences. In addition, Bray notes that assessment plays a different role in each of these cases.

Bray writes:

  • Individualized learning focuses on the assessment of learning.

  • Differentiated learning focuses on assessment for the purpose of learning.

  • Personalized learning integrates learning into assessment.

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up