Evidence for Learning: Individualised instruction

Individualised instruction

A summary of the research evidence on individualised instruction in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of individualised instruction on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on individualised instruction. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of individualised instruction interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Individualised instruction provides different tasks for each learner and provides support at the individual level. It is based on the idea that all learners are different and therefore have different needs, so an individualised or personally tailored approach to instruction ought to be more effective, particularly in terms of the tasks and activities that students undertake and the pace at which they make progress through the curriculum. Examples of individualised education have been tried over the years in education, particularly in areas like mathematics where students can have individual sets of activities which they complete, often largely independently.

While a general internet search revealed that governments and policy makers encourage this method of instruction, there remains weak empirical support for this teaching and learning intervention in Australia.

Few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of individualised instruction, and many of these focus on how it is used by teachers. The studies highlight the difficulties faced by educators in implementing individualised instruction in their classrooms, as it significantly increases workload. For example, in a case study of a school incorporating individualised instruction into their curriculum (Mills, Monk, Keddie, Renshaw, Christie, Geelan & Gowlett, 2014), one teacher discussed how she created five separate lessons for each class. Despite the significant increase in workload, she did not feel students’ outcomes were improving and believed she was spending less time working with students and more time organising and managing class time.

Relatedly, Hayes (2013) found that teachers reported a significant increase in their workload when using individualised instruction. Her study involved a three-year intervention program aimed at improving the performance of students who had already left school or had a very low attendance rate, by adapting tasks and assessments to individual student interests (based on individual learning plans). She had weekly meetings with the teachers and other stakeholders, and regularly observed classes. She found that while teachers were given a great deal of freedom to modify the curriculum, this did not always occur due to the increased workload. However, she found the program to be successful in improving the learning outcomes of disengaged students.

Australian-based studies on individualised instruction also tend to focus on either gifted’ or struggling’ students. For example, Bousnakis, Burns, Donnan, Hopper, Mugavero and Rogers (2011) examined an individualised instruction program for gifted Indigenous underachievers, Achievement Integrated Model (AIM). Students were profiled to identify their specific learning needs and likely causes of underachievement, and classroom tasks and activities were subsequently tailored based on the profiling results. The authors claim that students’ learning outcomes will improve as a result of this approach, which is particularly important for gifted Indigenous students, who face additional educational barriers and are less likely to be given space in the classroom to reach their full potential.

In their study of teaching writing to students with learning difficulties, van Kraayenoord, Miller, Moni and Jobling (2009) discussed how a secondary school English teacher successfully used differentiated instruction in the classroom. Based on observation, interview, surveys and analysis of lesson plans, they found that the teacher made an active effort to understand the varying learning needs of each student by reading their previous reports and watching their classroom behaviours. He then adapted lessons to meet students’ varying abilities. The researchers focused on the teacher’s interactions with one particular student, who appeared to be struggling with course content. The teacher was able to successfully engage with this student by adapting tasks (e.g., using flashcards to help with recall). While the authors concluded this teacher exemplified’ the differentiated learning approach, they believed he should have made more of an effort to engage with the student’s Indigenous culture.

Whipp, Taggart and Jackson (2014) examined how physical education teachers used individualised instruction strategies when teaching swimming to Year 8 students. The study involved interviewing and observing three teachers from two schools, with class sizes ranging from 24 to 30. The researchers found that the teachers believed the strategy to be essential for improving students’ learning outcomes and their overall confidence and enjoyment. While the specific tactics used by the teachers varied, they all demonstrated successful differentiation based on students’ varying capabilities (e.g., letting poorer swimmers do fewer laps, or doing the same number of laps using a floatation device).

Overall, while students can benefit from individualised instruction, it does not appear to be the most effective or practical teaching and learning intervention.

Bousnakis, M., Burns, T., Donnan, L., Hopper, S., Mugavero, G., & Rogers, K. B. (2011). Achievement Integrated Model: Interventions for Gifted Indigenous Underachievers. Giftedness From An Indigenous Perspective, 21(2), 43 – 77.

Hayes, D. (2013). Customization in Schooling Markets: The Relationship between Curriculum and Pedagogy in a Pop-Up” Learning Project, and the Epistemic Opportunities Afforded by Students’ Interests and Backgrounds. International Journal on School Disaffection, 10(2), 3 – 22.

Mills, M., Monk, S., Keddie, A., Renshaw, P., Christie, P., Geelan, D., & Gowlett, C. (2014). Differentiated learning: from policy to classroom. Oxford Review of Education, 40(3), 331 – 348.

van Kraayenoord, C. E., Miller, R., Moni, K., & Jobling, A. (2009). Teaching writing to students with learning difficulties in inclusive English classrooms: Lessons from an exemplary teacher. English Teaching, 8(1), 23 – 51.

Whipp, P., Taggart, A., & Jackson, B. (2014). Differentiation in outcome-focused physical education: pedagogical rhetoric and reality. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 19(4), 370 – 382.

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Personalised learning, individualised instruction, differentiated instruction, differentiated learning, personalised instruction, self-paced instruction, tailored instruction; Australia; New Zealand; Victoria; Tasmania; Queensland; New South Wales.