During the epidemic, it was difficult to tailor learning to students' particular academic strengths and limitations, as well as personal interests, especially in distant or hybrid learning situations. The issues were exacerbated by social separation in physical classrooms.

However, now that the majority of kids have returned to school, schools with personalised learning programs that faltered during the pandemic are working to get them back on track, while other schools are just getting started with personalised learning initiatives. No matter what stage they are at in putting such programs in place, one big worry is how such efforts will affect test scores. The reality is that changing up instruction and integrating more digital tools into learning could jeopardize everything from teachers’ relationships with their students to the school’s state standardized test scores.

So, what does personalized learning look like in schools that perform well on standardized tests versus those that perform poorly? What factors are at play that educators should know about?

Experts say that personalized learning, when implemented thoroughly, was effective for increasing academic achievement measured by standardized tests. One of the greatest fears of teachers and administrators is seeing a drop in their test scores. This makes them reluctant to transform their traditional practice to personalized learning. We hope this finding will assure them that personalized learning is effective if implemented well.

Motivation is powerful in learning. Every student has unique interests. Tailoring learning to individual students’ career goals and interests makes learning personally relevant and keeps students engaged in their learning processes. We found evidence that tailoring learning to their unique interests helped motivate the students to learn more in those schools. So, higher-performing schools may not be in a better position to use students’ interests.

Teachers in high-performing schools are known to form close relationships with more students than those in low-performing schools. Teachers in high-performing schools considered more characteristics of students in developing personalized learning plans, stayed more years with the same students, and assessed more non-academic competencies such as social skills and work ethic, than those in low-performing schools. In other words, they had more opportunities to interact with each student and get to know each. These opportunities allowed them to form closer relationships with their students.

There are several ways that close relationships between teachers and students improve student success. When teachers know more about each student, they know what works for the student. So, they can create more effective learning experiences for the student. Also, students tend to feel safe and cared for when they think that their teachers know them well. They can more easily share their difficulties, struggles, and failures. A safe and caring environment encourages them to be adventurous and proactive when it comes to learning instead of being afraid of failure.

Technology alone is not a key factor in the success of personalized learning, but it is an essential enabler, especially for personalized learning in a classroom with a large number of students. Using powerful technology systems will not guarantee the success of personalized learning. However, it is a must-have tool that helps teachers implement personalized learning.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Education Week The original article can be found at https://www.edweek.org/technology/why-personalized-learning-works-in-some-schools-but-not-in-others-what-test-scores-say/2021/10)