After setting goals for how to use their class time, Cole Smith’s ninth graders at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque started working on their own.

At one cluster of desks, students took online content assessments. Another student worked on a poster about the fall of Napoleon. Another prepared for an upcoming mock trial of characters from the novel “Lord of the Flies.”

Cathryn Skahill opened up a diagnostic quiz about early European democratic documents in the online learning-management system that she and her classmates use to guide them through the curriculum.

After looking over questions about the English Bill of Rights and Magna Carta, she realized she needed to go back and take more notes on the subject. So she opened up a slide presentation on the Magna Carta and started reading.

“We’re starting back where we left off,” she said.

Cathryn and her classmates are participants in Holy Family Catholic Schools’ new personalized-learning program, which puts an emphasis on allowing students to learn at their own pace.

After starting with a group of sixth graders last school year, Holy Family expanded the program this year to about 340 students and eventually aims to make it available for students in fourth through 12th grade.

The system joins hundreds of schools nationwide that have adopted personalized-learning models. While the approach gained attention from educators in recent years, little research has been completed yet on its effectiveness.

Holy Family officials said it will take time before they have the full scope of data showing the extent to which the program impacts student achievement. However, middle school students already are meeting goals for academic growth at a higher rate than expected.

The personal growth witnessed in students also affirms the local educators’ belief in the approach.

“I’m in the classrooms and I firsthand am seeing the difference in student engagement,” said Lisa Krapfl, Holy Family’s director of personalized learning. “I can’t tell you how different the classrooms feel.”

A different emphasis

On a recent morning, 10 fifth graders at Holy Ghost Elementary School worked on outlines for a draft of a speech.

Teacher Meagan Herkelman walked around the classroom and helped students who raised their hands. Abagale Dress called her teacher over to ask about adding figurative language to her outline.

“Does this look good?” Abagale asked.

“Is this all the information that you’re going to tell me?” Herkelman responded, encouraging her student to include all the information she wanted in her speech.

Four areas of emphasis in Holy Family’s personalized-learning program shape how participating students spend their days.

There is self-directed learning time, during which students choose which parts of the curriculum they want to work on.

They can access materials online or work with teachers offering instruction to small groups. Instead of taking classroom-wide tests, the students take content assessments when they are ready. If they want to dig deeper into subjects, they have the option to do so.

Most of students’ time — and their grade — is related to projects in each of their core subject areas.

Those projects are aimed at developing cognitive skills that will prepare them for college and the workforce. Students have to meet several checkpoints before turning in their final projects.

They also meet for 10 minutes each week with a teacher, counselor or principal serving as a mentor. During that time, they talk about their goals at school and the kinds of habits they can work on developing.

Staff also weave in a “faith in action” emphasis into students’ days aimed at helping them develop a sense of purpose.

“What students need to know is going to be similar (to a regular class) — it’s aligned to the standards,” said Phillip Bormann, principal of Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School. “The emphasis on how students learn and how they make understanding and meaning of the world is what personalized learning is about.”

All students in fourth and fifth grades are participating in personalized learning this year, along with sixth and ninth graders who opted in and a group of seventh graders who started last school year.

Over the coming years, Holy Family officials will add a personalized-learning option for the rest of its middle and high school students.

The program will remain optional for middle and high school students unless so many students choose personalized learning that staff cannot justify keeping a traditional program, Bormann said.

Krapfl has high hopes that the personalized-learning option will catch on.

“My goal is to help people understand and educate about personalized learning, about how it’s good practice, and my goal is that everybody wants in,” Krapfl said.

Instructional shifts

During a recent personalized-learning social studies class, Smith’s pupils split into small groups to organize their arguments for a debate about the effects of imperialism.

“You are going to become the master of knowledge of this specific document set,” Smith said.

Students used laptops to access documents to build their arguments, an activity that consumed much of the class period.

On a different day, students spent their period with Smith deciding what they wanted to work on.

Students who were ready to take content assessments sat at one cluster of desks answering multiple-choice questions. Another student left the room to meet with a mentor. Others read through presentations and documents on their computers for their core subject areas.

In personalized-learning classes, students dedicate 70% of their time to projects and 30% to self-directed learning.

Wahlert freshman Ellie Kirby said that, in her personalized-learning classes, she spends a lot more time working on projects than she did in traditional courses.

Her teachers spend less time at the front of the room giving instruction, giving her more time to do projects or learn on her own.

“I learn my way,” she said, adding, “The way I work works best for me.”

Herkelman, who teaches both fourth and fifth graders at Holy Ghost, spends most of her days guiding students through projects.

While the children receive some time to work through the curriculum on their own, she also provides more traditional instruction, such as when she is starting students on a project or when she is teaching math.

Overall, however, she spends less time delivering content and more time helping students apply what they have learned.

“I’m not necessarily teaching them the content,” she said. “They’re learning it, and we’re applying it all together in the bigger projects that we spend our time on.”

That doesn’t eliminate the need for a teacher, however, Herkelman said. Her students still need her to help them grow and learn.

“I’m still teaching,” she said. “It’s just, I’m not constantly teaching them the content.”

Technology integration

Holy Family staff members use a model developed by Summit Learning Program, which gives them access to a learning-management platform that students use to access curriculum materials, take assessments and submit their work.

The free program is being used by more than 380 schools nationwide. It receives backing and technical development assistance from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

Middle and high school students access the platform on their system-issued Chromebooks. Fourth and fifth graders each have assigned laptops that are kept at school.

While students have the flexibility to move through the curriculum at their own speed, the platform indicates how far along they should be in each subject throughout the year so the students can keep up.

The platform allows teachers to access data on how students are faring in their content areas, including which subjects they have mastered and where they are struggling, Krapfl said.

Teachers can use that information to work specifically with students who need support.

“(The Summit platform) is a tool and not the end result,” Bormann said. “Learning doesn’t come from a learning-management system. Learning comes from the interaction between teachers and students, (and) students and students.”

Henry Hayes, a fifth grader at Holy Ghost, said he often uses his computer throughout the school day. That can sometimes wear on his eyes, but he likes how easy it is for him to look up information and access different learning resources.

Ellie likewise said she frequently uses her computer for coursework but that she doesn’t mind it.

“All of my work is on there,” she said. “I actually find it better than having to write things out.”

Preliminary data

Officials said the results from the first two years of personalized learning in the school system are promising but that it is too early to conclusively judge the program’s impacts.

Administrators provided midyear MAP assessment data for personalized-learning students at Mazzuchelli because the school is in its second year implementing the program.

Those results show that as of January, 77% of sixth graders in personalized learning had met or exceeded their individual projected growth targets for the entire year in reading, as had 62% of seventh graders.

In math, 60% of sixth graders and 55% of seventh graders had met growth targets for the year.

“They’ve already surpassed what we’d expect them to accomplish in a year,” Bormann said.

Northwest Evaluation Association, which distributes the MAP test, designed it so that 50% of students are expected to meet their growth target by the end of the year, Bormann said.

However, he was very cautious about drawing conclusions based on the early data, noting that it would take several years for officials to gauge the effectiveness of the program.

“We’re blowing expectations for MAP out of the water, but we have not had enough years,” he said.

Bormann said administrators do not have good data this year to compare the performance of personalized-learning students to their peers because Holy Family recently transitioned to different student assessments.

Summit Learning requires that participating students take the MAP test, which Holy Family’s other students no longer take.

All students take the ACT Aspire exam, which they took for the first time last year. Because they just took this year’s Aspire test, comparative growth data is not yet available, Bormann said.

Iowa also recently transitioned to a new state assessment, so Holy Family officials do not yet have comparative data from that test to see how personalized-learning students are performing compared to their peers.

Early research

Though hundreds of schools have implemented personalized-learning, research into its effectiveness is still in its infancy.

A 2015 study by RAND Corp. found that students in personalized programs made significant gains in math and reading compared with their peers.

A subsequent study published in 2017, however, found more modest gains that were only statistically significant for students’ performance in math. Both studies were funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested in personalized-learning initiatives nationwide.

“(T)here are aspects of personalized learning that seem to hold promise for improving the U.S. K–12 education system, based on some limited research,” wrote John Pane, one of the authors of both studies, in a report last year. “However, more work is necessary to establish causal evidence that the concept leads to improved outcomes for students.”

Pane also noted that U.S. schools are increasingly experimenting with ways to better customize students’ educational experiences. However, implementation varies among schools, and there is no widespread agreement on how to define personalized learning.

Tom Meyer, superintendent of Bellevue (Iowa) Community School District, said his staff has looked into ways to “personalize” students’ education but have taken a different tack than Holy Family.

For example, high school students can participate in the Bellevue BIG program, through which they work on community projects aligned with their passions.

Meyer is currently working on earning his doctoral degree and will write his dissertation on the topic of personalized learning. One difficulty that comes with the subject is the varying ways that schools define “personalized learning,” he said.

Still, finding ways to tailor learning toward students’ interests and helping them connect their education to their lives is a worthwhile pursuit, he said.

“The more you personalize learning toward a student in your classroom, … the more you engage students in their learning and something that they’re interested in, the higher levels of learning that will occur,” he said.

Krapfl said that while research into personalized learning as a model is new, the focuses of the Summit program — such as the emphasis on developing cognitive skills and allowing students to learn at their own pace — are backed by educational research.

Her time in the classroom watching Holy Family students engage in personalized learning also has affirmed her conviction that the program is making a difference.

“We have the research that we know what’s best practice and what’s best for kids. Let’s do it,” she said.

Making an impact

Though students and their families faced a transition when they switched to personalized learning, several say they now appreciate the change.

Nick Faley, a fifth grader at St. Columbkille Elementary School, said school this year started out slowly as he and his classmates got used to pacing themselves as they moved through the curriculum.

Eventually, though, they got the hang of things, Nick said. His mentor helped him set goals and focus on habits he wanted to develop.

“I like that you can go at your own pace, learn what you want, learn what you want when you want to,” he said.

Nick’s mother, Janet Faley, said she had reservations when she first learned about the new program. However, her son’s academic performance this year, combined with the support her son receives from his mentor, has helped allay her fears.

“I don’t worry anymore because he’s still got that lust for learning, and he’s very engaged, and he seems happy,” Faley said.

Ellie was not enthusiastic when she learned her parents were signing her up for personalized learning. She thought she would be in a classroom with all the smart kids, while she preferred to just get by in school.

Ellie now says she loves the program. She enjoys getting to work on her own, rather than getting distracted while listening to a teacher. She has also learned to challenge herself.

“The program teaches you to work harder, and I think that actually has been effective for me,” Ellie said. “In this program, we don’t only just learn about school stuff. We learn about how to be better academically, growing to be a better student.”

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