The Swedish Institute for Educational Research works continuously to identify areas where there is a need for research-based knowledge on teaching and learning. This is done in dialogue with teachers, organizations within the school system and researchers within the field of educational science. One important area which has been identified during this work is adult education. Teachers in adult education especially need more knowledge on how to adapt their teaching to meet the diversity of students. They also need knowledge on how to individualize their instruction using digital tools.
The aim of this review is to answer the following questions:
- What are the characteristics of individualized instruction that meets the individual needs of students in adult education?
- How can teachers use digital tools to individualize their instruction?
Strategies for Individualized Instruction in Adult Education
By individualized instruction we mean teaching methods used by teachers to meet the individual needs of each student. We have identified three main strategies for individualized instruction:
- differentiated instruction
Grouping is when students are divided into groups or courses based on their circumstances and needs. Differentiated instruction is when teachers teach to a heterogenous group but considers the diversity of the individual students within that group. Tutoring is when students are given individual support by the teacher. In the studies included in this review the researchers often relate to one or more of these strategies for individualized instruction.
Responding to diversity among adult students
The review shows that teachers play a key role in how instruction is designed and implemented. But the teacher is not the only one who influences student learning in an educational situation. Other students can also play an important role for student learning. In particular, students who have little experience of education may depend on following the example of more experienced students. Imitating other students can enable students with limited experience of education to learn study techniques and how to behave and interact at school. Teachers who want to individualize their teaching need to consider how the educational environment enables students to imitate and learn from other students.
Adult students might have a multitude of experiences which the teacher can relate to in their teaching. By showing knowledge of and interest in a student’s previous experiences the teacher can conduct instruction that is adapted to each individual student. By means of such instruction a type of resonance can be achieved between the student’s experiences and the teaching content.
An educational environment is also a place to create a shared culture and a social arena which stimulates learning. The significance of interaction and dialogue between students and between students and teachers should not be underestimated in the creation of a learning environment. There may be students who first need to establish relationships and interaction patterns in an educational environment before learning content knowledge.
Individualizing instruction using digital tools
The review shows that introducing digital tools into education could affect opportunities for individualization in various ways. Using digital tools to implement, for example, distance learning can present both opportunities and challenges for individualized instruction. One opportunity is that the teacher, in a simple way, can present a wealth of information and material to the students individually. Among the challenges are that the teacher can have less oversight of the students in terms of what they are doing and how they are learning.
Adult students can be more or less well equipped to learn using digital tools. A teacher who is aware of this should be aware that some students need extra help and support. Teachers need to help students find a mix that works for them. For some students, distance learning might be the best alternative, but for other students this might increase the risk of dropping out.
Digital tools can complement teaching in and out of the classroom. Some students may be reluctant to ask the teacher to repeat something in a classroom environment. Access to recorded lessons can help students to get extra repetition whenever needed. But for this to work students need to have access and ability to use the digital tools provided.
A good introduction to digital tools is important. All students may need support in using digital tools for learning. When the learning tools are clearly explained, the students can take responsibility for their use of the tools, do what is expected of them and ask for help when necessary.
Making use of the findings
All instruction within the education system in Sweden should be informed by scientific research. The findings of this systematic review provide some scientific basis for teachers to use in their teaching. But the review also shows that there is still a long way to go. Adult education is an under-researched field and there is more work to be done by researchers.
This review does not prescribe any standard best practice for individualized instruction in adult education. Existing research in the area can only give examples of teaching outcomes in specific contexts and under certain conditions. In adopting a scientific approach the teacher should also to be critical of the findings and decide for themselves if the findings are applicable to their teaching situation.
The literature searches, conducted in Swedish and international research databases, resulted in 16 845 studies. After being evaluated according to relevance- and quality criteria, a total of fifteen studies remained. These studies constitute the basis for the synthesis presented in this systematic review.
The included studies use different research methods. They all help us explain or understand what characterizes individualized instruction which responds to the diversity among adult students. Some of the studies also seek to describe or explain how teachers can use digital tools to individualize their instruction.
The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).