Individualised instruction

Moderate impact for very low cost, based on moderate evidence.

What is it?

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.

How effective is it?

On average, individualised instruction has a positive effect on learners, although there is large variation across studies, with some showing small negative impacts.

For 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. This may explain some of the variation in impact. Because of this, individualised instruction may be better used as a supplement to usual class teaching, rather than a standard replacement.

Some recent studies have found higher impacts. These projects have tended to employ Digital technology to individualise instruction, and the use of this might explain the higher impacts. For example, technology may enable more immediate feedback on the individualised tasks (for more detail on the impact of Feedback see here).

How secure is the evidence?

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.

There is some 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.

What are the costs?

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.

What should I consider?

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 Metacognition and self-regulation). What are the implications of this for your pupils?

It may be that individualised instruction is only effective for pupils who are skilled in managing their own learning (see Metacognition 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.

The Education Endowment Foundation is a charity and a company limited by guarantee. Registered in England, Number 114 2111 Copyright 2017, Education Endowment Foundation all rights reserved.