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Personalising Learning – article by Deborah Brian

How to help all students to embrace their learning and develop into flourishing members of our society.

A personalised approach to teaching and learning can change the trajectory of a student’s education and have a hugely positive impact on their future careers.  There was a study by professors at a large university in 2012, where teachers “grounded their work in relationships, which aimed to build community and nurture students’ belief in themselves and their self-confidence and in which diverse ways of thinking were valued and validated” (Broom, 2015).  The evidence suggests that students’ levels of confidence increased due to improved performance, a boosted self-esteem and a sense of group belonging.  Students who experience a personalised teaching approach are more likely to take responsibility for their own learning, will make improved progress and ultimately, reap the emotional rewards of achievement and success.  They will also develop those essential, soft skills that will enable them to venture out into the world as independent thinkers and doers.

As educationalists, this is of course what we all want for our students, and for many of us, this is what we envisioned when we became teachers and felt that vocational pull towards teaching and shaping the blossoming futures of our young people.


But how might we approach this ideal?

In the landmark report Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review, Christine Gilbert suggests: “taking a highly structured and responsive approach to each young person’s learning, in order that all are able to progress, achieve and participate. It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging students as partners in learning”.

Uppermost, we must all turn our focus towards and respond to the learning and wider needs of individual students.  We must plan for their progression and adapt our teaching strategies to suit.   We must tell them that we expect them to achieve and make full participation the norm, so that they can experience the joys of accomplishment and can visualise success.


Let’s create relationships with our students based on trust, care and respect.  Let them make choices about the direction of their learning based on their interests and skills, and design inquiry based activities that feed into and build from these interests.

A significant factor in this process is empowerment, which is closely related to self-efficacy: “the belief that one controls one’s life and that one can make positive changes in one’s surrounding environment.” (Bandura, 1997; Beaumont, 2010; Fox et al., 2010)  By empowering our students to engage with their worlds through lively discussions and debates in inclusive and democratic classrooms, we are unlocking their potential to become expert negotiators, thinkers, decision makers and activists.


The key feature underpinning the pedagogy of Personalised Learning is high-quality teaching and learning:

  • Design your lessons with a clear focus and set sharp objectives.


  • Set the expectation of success and make the learning accessible – plan lessons that appeal and meet the common needs of all students, then build in support strategies and challenges for different abilities.


  • Alongside their individual needs, consider students’ interests and preferences. Remember that the most effective learning happens when we experience an emotional connection – build upon the diversity presented in the classroom and plan fun and engaging ‘experience’ activities to stimulate participation and promote joy.

‘Psychological research has indicated that emotional events are remembered more clearly than non-emotional events (Tyng at al, 2017).  Therefore, it stands to reason that activities which engage students emotionally can ensure information is remembered, alongside facilitating their ability to consider alternative modes of thinking.’ (Mansworth, 2019)


  • Demand 100% participation – it is our duty to support and encourage those who are reluctant or anxious – we are armouring them for future challenges.


  • Set high and realistic challenges – do not ‘spoon feed’.


  • Create many opportunities for ‘shared talk’ – discussion and debates. Expect students to be able to articulate their ideas to each other.


  • Give students a head start – pre-teach those who might struggle with the key ideas so they arrive at the lesson more prepared and more able to contribute.


  • Target questions sensitively to students to draw them in at the right level and help them to an answer.


  • Encourage a healthy outlook on receiving and acting upon feedback, with regular use of peer and self-assessment.


  • Invite students to work on tasks together so that they can show each other how they tackle them.


  • Help students to understand complex processes by modelling – this is more than demonstrating, it’s ‘thinking aloud’.


  • Support students’ imaginations by explaining concepts and events that are outside of their own experiences.


  • Focus on formative assessment throughout the lesson – this will allow you to adapt your teaching to make the most of every students’ potential and attend to weaknesses as they arise.


  • Use authentic praise to engage and motivate students.


  • Allocate regular time slots in your lessons for students to reflect, voice their opinions and share concerns, dreams and triumphs with each other.



Try these activities with your students:


1) Enquiry/problem-based project


  1. Tell a story that sets out a scenario with an issue or problem – to stimulate inquiry questions.
  2. Invite students to read an article about the issue to the class.
  3. Students then meet in groups to explore their initial responses to the scenario in the article.
  4. In their groups, students research the topic more deeply.
  5. Allow students to choose how they want to explore the issue further – what activities can they design…? Perhaps visits / interviews/ data collection / role-plays.
  6. Ask students to select their own medium for submitting individual ‘response’ pieces of work – they may choose to write reflective essays, create videos or blogs, or paint pictures with explanatory paragraphs.



2) Values discussion

Put students in groups of three and give them a new topic to discuss every few minutes.  Here are some examples:

  • Talk about the most important thing you learned this year.​
  • What is something that few people know about you?​
  • What do you value in a friend?​
  • What are the easiest and hardest emotions for you to express and why?​
  • What do you want to be doing in five years?​
  • What is a motto you try to live by?​
  • What is the greatest challenge that you are facing?​
  • What do you like most about yourself?​
  • What do you value most in life?


3) Build a team

Give every student a slip of paper when they come in that has a famous person, character, or something that could be ‘grouped’ on it.  The goal is for them to find other students that are of the same ‘group’ and get together.  Once they have found everyone in their group, you can set them a task.


4) Web we weave

Arrange students in a large circle.  Ask “what’s your favourite place to be when you are happy?’  Answer the question yourself, then toss a ball of wool across the circle to a student, while keeping hold of the end.  Repeat with students answering the question and tossing the ball of wool, until everyone has shared.  The result is a web that connects everyone.

At this point, ask two or three students to drop their wool – the web will sag and appear vulnerable.  You can then discuss how important each participant is to the team and the effect that low levels of involvement and commitment have on the whole group.




Department for children, schools and families, 2008, ‘Personalised Learning – A Practical Guide’.


Catherine Broom, 2015, Empowering students: Pedagogy that benefits educators and learners,



Michelle Cummings, 2020, Virtual Team Building Activities,


Megan Mansworth, 2019, ‘Let’s get creative about the knowledge-rich classroom’, TES Magazine