Personalized learning is key to meeting students’ needs in higher education

Skills Infographic = training, competence, learning, knowledge, advanced training, growth ability and experience

Traditionally, college faculty prepare a one-size-fits-all curriculum for a class, and students either master the material or they don’t. Those who struggle are liable to fall farther and farther behind, with potentially serious consequences for their academic and professional careers.

Now, thanks to technological advances, higher education can avoid that unfortunate outcome with personalized learning. In this approach, instructors acknowledge that each student begins a course with different knowledge, skills, and abilities. From various starting points, they can attain their educational goals by becoming active collaborators in the learning process. Interactive technology allows them to assess themselves, track their progress, and determine their next steps based on relevant data.

Wayne and Jeff Russell
Instructors Wayne Pferdehirt and Jeffrey S. Russell address students in an introductory video for Technical Project Management.

Higher education has experimented with this innovative method, but one-size-fits-all courses remain the dominant model for residential-based learning. For adult students seeking to continue their education, I would like to see more faculty explore personalized learning to help prepare them for a wide range of challenges in the workplace. Our experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that they can learn better and faster in this setting, as long as instructors structure the course to meet their needs and provide the essential feedback.

Self-assessments and check-ins

With personalized learning, it’s important to determine what students know at the outset of a course. In my team-taught online course Technical Project Management, for example, the adult learners come in with a variety of educational, work, and life experiences, so we ask them to do a self-assessment survey to determine their skill level and their expectations for the course. This exercise helps us identify the gaps in their knowledge, and it helps students begin the process of personalizing the course for themselves.

Strategic Thinking, Project execution, team amanagement and project leadership infographic
A model of the four key competencies for Technical Project Management.

The self-assessment survey also allows students to establish a benchmark for monitoring their progress. It automatically creates an individualized dashboard they can review throughout the course. The dashboard gives them a way of assessing their performance in four key competencies: strategic thinking, project execution, team management, and project leadership.

“The survey helped to highlight the many areas a technical leader needs fluency in,” says student Joey Schmidt. “From my results, I was immediately able to see my weaker areas, and I can now focus on improving them both in class and at work.”

Along with completing the self-assessment, students pick a challenge goal: a competency they want to develop during the course that helps them grow as practicing professionals. The goal is unique for each student, and the course includes check-in points at which they reflect on their progress. The check-ins significantly increase their chances of success.

team dashboard
The team dashboard for Technical Project Management.

At the beginning of Technical Project Management, the students form teams for working on group projects. Like each individual student, each team receives its own dashboard, which charts its progress on the four competencies. Team members also share their individual challenge goals on these dashboards, identifying areas where they can improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Teams use the dashboards to monitor their work, share information, and provide feedback to each other—another important component of personalized learning.

“The dashboard helped my team and I leverage each other’s strengths and work on our challenge goals and weaknesses,” says student Jenn Campbell. “We divided work according to who would do a great job, but also according to who would grow the most from each task.”

For each phase of the group projects, teams choose a different student to take the lead. As one team noted on its project plan, “This arrangement allows team members with an interest and/or a strength in a particular area as noted in the personal challenge goals to provide leadership while the other team members can build their skills by providing project support.”

At the end of the course are team evaluations and self-evaluations, based on quantitative scores from the dashboards. Students can identify the lessons they learned, as well as the gaps they still need to fill.

Team Assessment
Team assessment for Technical Project Management.

Progress toward mastery

What of the faculty’s role in this process? As students direct themselves through Technical Project Management, we instructors facilitate learning and the progress toward mastery—in other words, the means of applying skills, abilities, and knowledge to solve complex problems. Most important, we provide feedback to ensure that all class members are on track to meet their goals. Our input encourages students to rework and improve what they’ve done.

The students’ self-guided learning in Technical Project Management gets them invested in the curriculum. It gives them a chance to make mistakes and to see those mistakes as learning opportunities, not negative outcomes to avoid at all costs. Instead of merely reading and memorizing, as in a traditional course, they make decisions, integrate knowledge, and perceive practical applications. They also gain the confidence to continue applying what they’ve learned in real-world situations.

Indeed, personalized learning is an effective way of helping students develop troubleshooting and critical thinking abilities. It prepares them for challenges they’ll encounter in their careers, equipping them to creatively adapt to any circumstances. Given that they won’t have time to achieve complete mastery in a semester-long course, it also provides a platform for lifelong learning so they can continue their educational journey.

Competencies and skill medals

One of the chief benefits of personalized learning is its potential for meeting students’ needs. Rather than striving for mastery in a broad area, as they would in a traditional program, they can focus on specific competencies that advance their careers.

UW-Madison’s Online Professional Master’s Program in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Web Map Programming, for example, is divided into learning paths. When students complete a set of courses, they receive an official digital skill medal certifying that they have a particular technical or conceptual capability. Students can “stack” these credentials to show employers their qualifications for doing a particular job.

Randy Sincoular
The personalized approach in the Professional Master’s Program in GIS and Web Map Programming allowed Randy Sincoular to focus on the specific competencies he needed to boost his career.

This model suited Randy Sincoular, who had been working with GIS at Alliant Energy for a quarter-century. Even with his extensive experience in the field, he decided to enroll in the Professional Master’s Program in GIS and Web Map Programming to bring his skills up to date. He appreciated the personalized approach, which allowed him to focus on the specific competencies he needed to boost his career.

“As I finished up my digital portfolio for my first class, I sat back in amazement,” Sincoular says. “I couldn’t believe what I accomplished. I learned to use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create an infographic and shaded relief map. I also built a responsive web page that I could use to display my work on the internet. Wow.”

A worthy goal

These examples of successful personalized learning relate to adult professionals who want to sharpen their skills and boost their careers. I realize that personalizing courses for residential undergraduate students comes with its own set of challenges, and the methods I discuss here may not be feasible for them. Most college freshmen, for example, will likely lack the experience to profit from the kinds of self-assessment surveys and challenge goals we employ in Technical Project Management.

Even in a continuing-education setting, however, it can be difficult for faculty to adapt a course to personalized learning. Instructors must determine how to provide students at various levels the optimal combination of skills and knowledge to perform specific tasks, and then how to measure progress for each individual. They must become comfortable with the idea that assigning grades is less important than providing feedback—that engagement is their most essential function. And they must accept the idea that a course can be geared toward what is best for all students, not just most of them.

As if that weren’t difficult enough, there are barriers to implementing the necessary technology. Interactive technology is what makes personalized learning possible on a large scale, providing students with tracking tools and data to inform their next steps. To make it work, faculty must commit themselves to learning about the many digital platforms and how they can be incorporated into course design—no easy task.

But the payoff is profound, especially for lifelong learners who have struggled with a rigid educational model that doesn’t always fit their learning needs. If you take into account where students are starting from and what they hope to achieve, you can provide an education that gets them where they want to go. That’s a worthy goal for higher education in the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in The EvoLLLution.