Identify Learner Variability and Personalize the Student Experience for Success

Can’t Miss: Learn more about this topic in Wisewire’s webinar with Digital Promise, Addressing Learner Variability for PreK-3 Reading Success


Peter’s mom was worried. At age 6, he still showed no interest in learning his letters and seemed to confuse the ones he did know. He much preferred exploring outside, finding bugs under logs and identifying birds.

Most teachers will recognize this story. Not all students are ready to learn the same content at the same time. What’s more, not all students learn using the same strategies and techniques. A lesson that works perfectly for most students will leave a few others confused and frustrated. Some students may be bored by the lesson, while a few simply won’t pay attention.

This is learner variability manifesting itself in the classroom. Students not only learn in different ways, but they also have unique motivations, interests, personalities and strengths. The teacher’s task is to tap into the different facets that make each student unique in order to reach all students and help them achieve their full learning potential. This article will help you identify and address learner variability in your classroom. If you want a deeper dive into the topic of personalizing learning, it may pay to take a virtual class like this webinar hosted by Wisewire & Digital Promise.

A Brief History of Learner Variability

Addressing learner variability in the classroom is getting a lot of attention these days, but it’s not a new concept. More than100 years ago, some of the greatest psychologists and thinkers in education advocated for addressing learners’ unique needs. Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky made great advances in addressing learner variability.

Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor turned educator, offered another model to follow. Montessori created an education philosophy based on her observations of children. Her methods rely on a child-centered classroom that allows children many freedoms not afforded in the traditional classroom. Students choose activities and lessons from shelves. The teacher serves as a guide to gently invite students to try new lessons they may be ready for or interested in. As long as students are respectful of each other and use the materials correctly, they are allowed to work in peace.

The Montessori method continues to be popular today, especially at the preschool and kindergarten levels. But it’s not the only example of teaching that allows and encourages learner variability in the classroom. Here are some more recently developed methods:

  • Inquiry-Based Learning

Led by students, this method spurs curiosity. Students are encouraged to pose questions and seek answers through research and experiments. The teacher’s role is to help students develop research and problem-solving skills that will serve them in the inquiry process.

  • Project-Based Learning

Similar to inquiry-based learning, this method calls for students to answer a question or solve a problem by working on a project. An effective project is authentic to students’ lives, meaning it is relevant to the real world and may have real-life implications. For example, a student might choose a community issue, research it, and write a letter to the mayor about it.

  • Universal Design for Learning

This theory encourages all students to develop their own unique learning style, essentially learning how to learn. Following some basic parameters, UDL requires that classrooms offer multiple means of representation, engagement, and opportunities for action and expression.

What do these methods of learner variability have in common? Each values student individuality, and none requires all students to be working on the same skill or subject at the same time. As a result, student engagement is boosted—learning becomes fun when it’s personalized! Students also learn a variety of skills at once, such as how to collaborate with peers and organize their work; they also practice foundational tasks such as using a computer, improving handwriting, reviewing arithmetic, and anything else the project involves.

Embracing Learner Variability in the Classroom

It may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but there are practical ways that teachers can implement these ideas in the classroom. Here are some examples:

  • Montessori Geography Projects for Lower Elementary Students

When studying physical geography, students are encouraged to develop their knowledge of maps and landforms. After exploring these concepts in a variety of ways, students are asked to complete a project of their choice. The teacher provides project ideas, such as draw a map of your route from home to school, make a topical relief map of the continent of North America, or draw an illustrated map of the town. Students are also welcome to come up with their own project ideas with the support of the teacher.

  • Inquiry-Based Learning in Ontario Kindergartens

In 2009, Ontario began implementing a full-day kindergarten program using inquiry-based and play-based learning as a foundation. Children in the program are able to choose among a variety of learning centers, either on their own or with adult guidance. Outdoor play and story time are other staples of the program in Canada.

  • Project-Based Learning for Second-Graders

On the Edutopia blog, one second-grade teacher shares how she made a project out of an empty sandbox. The sandbox needed to be filled, so she challenged her class with the real-world task of deciding how much sand to order and making the call to the supplier. Students learned about volume and payments; they also practiced making phone calls and working as a team.

As you can see, there are many diverse ways to accommodate learner variability in the classroom.

Adapting the Classroom

Here are some practical suggestions for teachers to gradually adapt their classroom and teaching style to better accommodate learner variability:

1. Be More Flexible

Students inevitably come up with questions and show interest in a variety of topics when you’re teaching. Why not allow further exploration into one of these areas? Rather than strictly follow your lesson plan, allow students who express interest in another topic to do a project or an assignment related to their interest.

2. Rethink Assignments

Opt for projects, displays and experiments rather than worksheets and assignments with one correct answer. This allows students to choose how they’ll present their work and take more ownership of the outcomes.

3. Take Small Steps

Don’t feel like you should change your classroom overnight. Take small steps toward accommodating learner variability over time, and you’ll start to notice a difference.

Embracing learner variability can help students reach their full potential, using their unique gifts and interests to succeed. There’s no one right way to learn. “Flexible teachers can also use learning materials and content in their classrooms that is geared specifically to better support all students as they work toward attaining an understanding in one or more subject areas. The supplementary content not only serves to teach students but guides teachers as well.”

Peter, the student who wanted to dig for bugs instead of read, did eventually learn his letters. In the Montessori classroom where he studied, he took an interest in sandpaper letters, one of the many materials available for letter learning. True, by the time Peter showed interest, most of his classmates had long since mastered their letters. Yet rather than force Peter before he was ready, the program allowed him to learn in his own time; once he made that decision, he mastered his letters quickly.

This example shows us that embracing learner variability can greatly benefit students. All it requires is for teachers to recognize and make space for these differences in learning.