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 students 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 students 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?
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.
Empirical research about individualised instruction as a teaching and learning intervention in Australian schools remains limited, and the few Australian-based studies on individualised instruction also tend to focus on either ‘gifted’ or ‘struggling’ students.
The available Australian research suggests that it is not the most effective or practical intervention and shows that teachers face practical difficulties employing this intervention, such as curriculum restrictions and significant increases in their workload.
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 students’ 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.
What are the costs?
The costs of implementing individualised learning is usually low, unless the approach uses technology (such as tutoring programs or integrated learning systems). Estimated outlay for increased resourcing per student is $270 per year. Overall, costs are therefore estimated as low.
What should I consider?
It is hard to identify exactly why individualised instruction is not more effective. It may be that in a classroom regrouping, 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 students – 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 students who are skilled in managing their own learning (see Meta-cognition and self-regulation). What are the implications of this for your students?
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 students 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.