eBASE, effective basic services:Individualised instruction

Individualised instruction

Moderate impact for moderate cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Individualised instruction involves providing different tasks for each learner and support at the individual level. It is based on the idea that all learners have different needs, and that therefore an approach that is personally tailored — particularly in terms of the activities that pupils undertake and the pace at which they progress through the curriculum — will be more effective.

Various models of individualised instruction have been researched over the years in education, particularly in subjects like mathematics where pupils 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.

1. Individualised instruction can be an effective approach to increasing pupil attainment. It can, however, be a challenging approach to implement given the increased requirements on the teacher to organise and monitor individual activities.

2. Studies of Individualised instruction with older pupils of secondary age tend to show higher effects. It may be that the impact is increased when pupils are more skilled at managing their own learning.

3. There is evidence that digital technology can be used effectively to provide individualised instruction. Many of these studies use digital technology alongside small group tuition, with teachers providing targeted instruction to the pupils that are not engaging with the technology.

4. Small group learning might be another promising approach to meeting differing learner needs without reducing the total amount of teaching time that pupils receive.

On average, individualised instruction approaches have an impact of 4 months’ additional progress.

Behind this average, there is a large amount of variation. Some of this may be explained by the challenges of implementing the approach effectively, without diminishing engaged learning time. For classroom-based approaches, it appears that the role of the teacher may become more managerial, with the increased need for organising and monitoring learning activities leaving less time for high quality pedagogical interaction. Because of this, individualised instruction may be better used as a supplement to usual class teaching, rather than a replacement.

Some recent studies have used digital technology with diagnostic assessment and feedback to individualise instruction, and positive impacts on average. For example, technology may enable more immediate feedback on the individualised tasks (for more detail on the impact of feedback see here).

A small number of studies have examined including peer feedback as part of individualised instruction. The results in these studies are positive, on average.

Overall, local evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) on individualised instruction is found to have a positive effect on learner’s outcomes, although studies are mostly from Nigeria. These studies look at the effects of individualised instruction on learners’ outcomes within specific subjects. Studies have also highlighted a positive impact on students’ attitudes towards mathematics with individualised and cooperative learning methods.

Some studies show a higher impact of cooperative learning strategies when compared to individualised methods of teaching, with both having positive impacts compared to regular teaching methods.

Using digital technology has also been shown to be effective in delivering individualised instruction, although researchers have encountered challenges sampling schools for studies as most schools lacked these digital technologies.

  • Studies in secondary schools show higher effects (+4 months) than primary schools (+3 months). This may indicate that a level of independence and established self-regulation strategies are beneficial for individualised instruction to be effective.

  • Effects tend to be higher in science (+4 months) than mathematics or reading (+3 months).

  • A number of studies indicate that teaching assistants can support individualised approaches effectively.

  • Approaches using digital technology to individualise instruction show that they are as effective as those without technology.

  • Studies have been undertaken in 12 countries around the world with broadly similar effects.

Individualised instruction aims to improve outcomes through providing targeted support to learners. In order to ensure that the approach is effective, schools should consider how they will provide:

  • Accurate assessments of pupil learning gaps and needs.
  • Activities that are closely matched to pupil’s level of knowledge, understanding or skills.
  • Individualised feedback either from teachers or peers.

In some studies, these elements have been provided through digital technology – for example, through intelligent tutoring systems that provide responsive feedback and assessment.

Individualised instruction interventions can be delivered through a range of models including independent learning, classroom-based activities supported by a teacher or teaching assistant and the use of digital technologies which have been developed to support individual activities with assessment and feedback.

School leaders should consider how best to monitor approaches to ensure individualised instruction is implemented effectively. Ensuring individualised instruction activities are used to supplement (and not replace) high-quality teacher interaction is important. School leaders may also consider small group approaches to provide learners with effective practice, monitored and supported by a teaching assistant.

Individualised learning approaches usually entail recruiting and training more teachers on different teaching methods. Also, approaches using technology, such as online tutoring programmes or integrated learning systems, are still expensive within the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) context. These, coupled with infrastructural deficiencies will most likely increase implementation costs. Cost is likely to be moderate.

Adopting individualised instruction will also require a small amount of additional staff time compared with other approaches as interventions are largely delivered during lesson time.

The security of the evidence around Individualised Instruction is rated as limited. 198 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost three additional padlocks because:

  • Only a small percentage of studies have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies were also not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger effects, which may influence the overall impact.
  • There is a large amount of unexplained variation between the results included in the topic. All reviews contain some variation in results, which is why it is important to look behind the average. Unexplained variation (or heterogeneity) reduces our certainty in the results in ways that we have been unable to test by looking at how context, methodology or approach is influencing impact.

In SSA, there have been no systematic reviews or meta-analysis specific enough to fully support the positive impact of individualised learning approaches.

There are however a number of quasi-experimental studies that include pre and post-testing to determine the impact of the intervention. Evidence is mostly drawn from studies conducted in secondary schools in Nigeria. Most of these studies looked at mathematics, with the others looking at biology and chemistry.

There is a need for more robust research in this area to inform policymakers on the impact of individualised instruction on the educational and career attainment in children. 

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies198
Review last updatedJuly 2021