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Perspective | What makes personalization different: How CBE centers students

This is the third piece in a series of perspectives on competency-based education. Read the first article here and read the second article here.

Historically, teachers have been the center of the classroom, primarily disseminating information. Teacher-led models of instruction have evolved over time to become more student-centric. For example, differentiation happens when teachers work with groups of students who are at similar places in their understanding of content. Individualization occurs when the teacher offers instructional support to an individual student. Personalization, however, is dissimilar from these models because it focuses on students taking an active role in their learning.

In the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, the US Department of Education defined personalized learning as:

“…instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are made available that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated.”

Many organizations have their own definitions for personalized learning. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology reviewed these descriptions and found some key similarities:

  • The pace of learning is adjusted. Some students need more time than others to grasp a concept, and that is normal and acceptable as learning is a continuum. When the pace of learning is adjusted for a student, they can take the time they need to understand material and be confident in their knowledge to move to the next topic.
  • Learning objectives, approaches, content, and tools are tailored for each learner. Tailored instruction can look like flexible seating arrangements, modified activities, or even the opportunity to complete coursework outside of school. To tailor instruction means that teachers know their students’ interests and abilities while acknowledging their needs.
  • Learning is driven by learner interests. Teachers can leverage students’ interests in ways that offer choices in assignments or facilitating peer groups with similar passions.
  • Learners are given the choice in what, how, when, and where they learn. Student agency is a key component to personalized learning. Autonomy empowers students and encourages curiosity to answer their own questions, in their own way, on their own time.
  • Learning is often supported by technology. It is important to understand that personalized learning does not require constant use of technology. Technology use can be beneficial in supporting student learning, but using technology is not a requirement for personalization.

Connecting CBE to personalized learning

Competency-based education (CBE) is a personalized approach to learning, allowing students to move through content toward a goal at their own pace. At RTI International, we like to think of the relationship between CBE and personalized learning as a square and a rectangle — squares are always rectangles, but rectangles are not always squares. Similarly, CBE is always a form of personalized learning, but personalized learning isn’t only evident in CBE.

Students in CBE classrooms have increased accountability and awareness of their learning. This autonomy is evident as students set their own learning targets and track their growth with resources and support provided from teacher(s). Grade levels and course completion are not defined by sitting in a classroom, so students can progress through content based on their ability to demonstrate mastery. Students receive multiple opportunities to advance if needed, and teachers offer meaningful feedback to students which allows them to determine where and how they can improve. When demonstrating mastery, students may also have options for how they are assessed, allowing for a more personalized experience. CBE as a method of personalization facilitates a way of learning that is more relevant for students.

The CBE mastery framework

To help educators and other stakeholders better understand the necessary change that accompanies CBE, the REL Southeast — in partnership with educators in North Carolina — developed the CBE Mastery Framework. The Framework provides structure to support educators in thinking about the shifts that are needed to implement CBE and is built around the dimensions of Structure, Culture, Teaching, and Learning as the main drivers for change.

CBE Mastery Framework by REL Southeast

Structure typically includes changes at the state, district, or school levels, considering what school schedules look like or what assessments are used. Culture is rooted in the school and classroom, where mission, engagement, and relevance align. Teaching focuses on what classroom teachers or individuals who work directly with students can do to improve their practice, such as expanding content expertise and being a facilitator of learning. Lastly, Learning is about the student—how students will use their voices and take ownership of their learning. All these dimensions revolve around meeting students’ needs. When each dimension of the Framework is addressed at the various levels, then CBE implementation can be successful.

Questions to ask to center students

CBE as a method of personalization enables learning that is authentic. Leaving behind the traditional “rows of desks” classroom can be challenging in many ways for many people, especially students. When planning to create a personalized learning environment — especially one that is competency-driven — keeping students at the forefront of the planning process is key.

Here are some foundational questions for educators to consider the students’ perspective before starting to plan for CBE at the classroom, school, or district level:

  1. How will the student feel in this new environment of learning? What will they think, say, and do in this space?
  2. What challenges will arise for students as the classroom transitions to a personalized learning environment?
  3. What gains will students see as they begin down a personalized learning pathway?

To learn more about personalization in North Carolina, join one of our upcoming regional meetings facilitated by REL Southeast in partnership with NC DPI using this registration link.

October 2


PD & Family Engagement Center
415 S. Virginia Street
Goldsboro, NC 27530

October 3


BTW Educational Resource Ctr
66 Booker T Washington Road
Clarkton, NC 28433

October 9


Beaufort County EdTech Center
820 Bridge Street
Washington, NC 27889

October 10

North Central

Franklin County Schools
53 West River Road
Louisburg, NC 27549

October 17


Buncombe County Schools
175 Bingham Road
Asheville, NC 28806

Allison Redden

Allison Redden (formerly Stewart) works as an education research analyst with RTI International’s Center for Education Services (CES). A former public school educator in the Triangle, Allison participated in several teacher leadership programs in North Carolina, including the Kenan Fellowship and the Education Policy Fellowship Program. She was the Public School Forum’s Beginning Teacher Leadership Network Coordinator for Wake County before moving to Tennessee to pursue her Master of Public Policy at Vanderbilt, specializing in K-12 Education Policy. She is interested in engaging in conversations and actions to advance equity, while navigating the intersections of education, economics, and policy. Redden is a proud product of North Carolina public schools, from Cabarrus County Schools to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.