My learning should be about me… but how?

I wanted to take a bit of time to think about the concept of personalized learning. In my EC&I 831 course, I would say that things are pretty personal. Our assignments are very open for us to make of this course what we will. Although there are weekly online class sessions, we have a lot of freedom. Much more so than many courses I’ve taken, especially when I think back to -12 and undergraduate work.

I really enjoy this freedom. As an experienced learner, I feel fairly prepared to delve into this type of environment. But what about the students I encounter who have made it clear that they want to be told what is on the exam and who want me to give them my PowerPoint slides so they can just memorize everything and spit it back to me for an A? I am concerned that those students aren’t prepared for this and yet, I want to teach them to learn and give them a way to make any course relevant to them.

So if there is a movement toward personalized learning, what does that really mean? How personalised or individualised can it get?

I do notice that there are different ways of looking at this. Barbara Bray created a fantastic chart to show what individualised vs personalised vs differentiated really means. As she said, however, that isn’t always clear.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Ian Guest

I like the idea of personalised learning best, I have to admit, although I can see the benefits of the other two types as described by Bray. As a serial grad student, I am more than happy to learn about what interests me and take ownership of my learning and my path. I have figured a lot of that out and it is assumed that, to some extent, I have sufficient knowledge to determine what I want to do and how to get there.

How do we teach students that, though? How much freedom can we give them while still ensuring that they have the core knowledge that is needed, that all of them need?

This is one of those things I find coming up when discussing instructional design. Instructors often feel that there is a core of knowledge of their area that must be dumped into the students at some level. It may be introductory, it may be further on. So it cannot all be personalized. We do need some exposure to certain things in order to move forward or have conversations with others in our field, at some point. Right? I’m told this is true and, to some extent, I do agree. The components of a properly constructed sentence are going to be the same regardless of your interests. The anatomical terms for the body don’t change based on the specialization you want to have after learning them.

The sheer amount of time personalisation can require is, I know, one of the drawbacks and stumbling blocks may instructors encounter. How do you make that more basic learning personal for everyone while still ensuring that the material is conveyed? Personally I think this is where the role of assignments comes into play, where the basic information is provided but is then implemented by the learner in ways that make sense.

I am trying to think through how this could be done in an introductory Religious Studies course. I can certainly see many ways to give students freedom to investigate ideas that are of interest but… part of the purpose of the course is to provide exposure to different ideas, different concepts and religions. Not all students will be interested. Some may not know they are interested until exposed. So where do I draw the line? Does freedom come from the assignments? Does personalization come from letting everyone choose different religions and concepts? How do I assess learning in that case?

My experience as a learner has been that I had freedom at he university level, within limits. I could choose paper topics, within certain boundaries, sometimes choosing from provided options, sometimes proposing my own. As my courses got to be higher level, I could even select the topic itself and propose it to an instructor as a reading course. Sometimes I chose my own materials or shaped the course entirely. I have even created my own exam questions. But the more personalized it got, the higher level I was at. And the more time it took to meet one-on-one although the work of creating the material or compiling it was most often my own. By then, however, I had experience doing this. I felt comfortable with it.

If anyone has good resources to share on how this can be done well, I would greatly appreciate it. Being in the first semester of my Master of Education after spending years in a different field, I am always looking for suggestions of where to look, people to read on different topics, good examples of design.

2 thoughts on “My learning should be about me… but how?”

  1. Thanks for your post Kirsten. I option have students that want me to tell them exactly whats I want for an assignment. When I’m asked this I feel like they’re saying “tell me what you want so I can get a good mark” and hence they may not be as concerned about the learning aspect of it. I’ve been in several open classes where I have done assignments and readings that were not going to be graded and I usually end up learning so much more because I feel that I can experiment and make mistakes without worrying about losing marks.

    It’s really hard to make learning personalized for individuals when marks are involved, but I think assignments can have some structure or required components and still be open enough to allow students to explore they’re areas of interest.

    Great post! Thanks 🙂


    1. I had one student ask me on the first day if it was possible to get a 90 in the class. I told him yes. Because it was possible. But that really said a lot about why he was there. And I’ve been that student just wanting to figure out what the instructor wants so I can get a good grade. I love the idea of giving more space to experiment and to fail in ways that are productive. I’ve never really had that experience but sometimes it is hard to motivate new students when there isn’t a grade. So maybe some of this is finding ways to get the emphasis to learning instead of grades. Hard to do when students rely on grades to stay in their program, get scholarships, get into advanced programs, etc. Grades don’t matter once you convocate, but up until then, boy do they matter.

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