Individualising instruction involves providing different tasks for each learner and support at the individual level. It is based on the idea that all learners are different and have different needs, and that therefore a personally tailored approach - particularly in terms of the tasks and activities that pupils undertake and the pace at which they make progress through the curriculum - will be more effective. Various models of individualised instruction have been tried over the years in education, particularly in subjects like mathematics where pupils can have individual sets of activities which they complete, often largely independently. More recently, digital technologies have been employed to facilitate individual activities and feedback.
Individualised instruction has a positive effect, on average, for learners. However, the average impact tends to be low, and in some studies is negative, appearing to delay progress by one or two months.
In classroom-based approaches it appears that the role of the teacher may become more managerial, with the increased requirements for organising and monitoring learning activities leaving less time for high quality pedagogical interaction. Because of this, individualised instruction may be better used as an occasional supplement to usual class teaching, rather than a standard replacement.
There have been a number of meta-analyses which have found broadly similar effects, and support the conclusion that individualising learning for whole classes is not hugely beneficial for pupils’ learning.
This finding is also supported by research from other connected fields, such as computer based learning, and Bloom’s ‘mastery learning’, where students have instructions broken down into steps, receive feedback on their learning, and only move on when they have ‘mastered’ a particular step. In both fields, small group approaches appear to be more effective than individualised approaches.
The evidence is mostly drawn from secondary school studies and studies in mathematics, though there is also evidence from other curriculum subjects such as science, history and geography.
The costs of implementing individualised learning are usually very low. Approaches using technology, such as online tutoring programmes or integrated learning systems, have become less expensive in recent years. Overall costs are therefore estimated as very low.
It is hard to identify exactly why individualised instruction is not more effective. It may be that in a classroom setting, learners receive more individualised instruction, but less high quality teaching time in total.
How will you ensure that there is sufficient time for direct teacher interaction with all pupils – individually and as a class - given the increased requirements on the teacher to organise and monitor individual activities?
It may be that individualised instruction is only effective for pupils who are skilled in managing their own learning (see Meta-cognition and self-regulation). What are the implications of this for your pupils?
Have you considered small group learning (see small group tuition) as a way to meet differing learner needs without reducing the total amount of teaching time that pupils receive?
Using digital technology to deliver individualised learning activities can provide learners with effective practice but learners also need direct instruction from a teacher when learning new content, or when they are not making progress.