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Building a Blended Learning Classroom that Works

By Marcia Kish / September 2015

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What happens when you mix technology with classroom instruction, robust data, a desire to keep students engaged, and personalize learning? Voilà, blended learning.

It sounds deceptively simple when the instructional model is boiled down to its core components and purpose. As a blended learning coach, I've helped hundreds of teachers create engaging blended learning environments that meet the needs of their students. Through these collaborations, I've found two things to be true. The first is blended learning can significantly improve student learning and growth; the second is these results can only be achieved if effective use and understanding of high-quality data is part of the blended learning model that is implemented.

Like any learning model, blended learning takes time, patience, and investment to advance student growth. But what's most exciting throughout the process is teachers' practical use of assessment data to connect their students with targeted instructional resources. Below are some key principles that inform effective blended learning, a discussion of why these principles are useful, and some tips for getting started with blended learning.

"3 Ps and a D" for Student-centered Learning

There are numerous definitions of blended learning, each with its own emphasis and level of complexity. For example, a report from the Babson Research Group defines blended learning, in simple terms, as instruction in which between 30 and 80 percent of the content is delivered online [1]. Many other definitions, though, are more complex and point to desired outcomes that result from blended learning, especially increased personalization of instruction.

In this respect, perhaps the best definition of blended learning, and among the most commonly accepted [2], comes from the Christensen Institute. The Institute defines blended learning as an approach to teaching and learning that leverages online resources to create a personalized learning experience over which students have meaningful control [3].

As a believer in student-centered instructional strategies, the Christensen Institute's definition and its emphasis on student control resonates with me. Accordingly, I teach my trainees to rely on the "3Ps and a D," that the Christensen Institute identifies as the key components of a successful blended learning strategy: path, pace, place, and data [4]. Together, these concepts can transform classrooms at any level.

With this model, students choose their own path, work at their own pace, in their own place, and teachers use data to ensure optimal student growth by personalizing student support. Effective blended learning teachers understand adopting the "3 Ps and a D" does not mean surrendering instructional control. It is a way for students to take ownership of their learning under their teacher's expert guidance. Here's how.

Student-driven learning paths. Students can pursue topics that interest them in formats that are appealing and engaging. A blended learning teacher can provide students different modules to learn course objectives. Some students prefer learning from the teacher in small groups, while others learn best watching a teacher-made video or a game that teaches a particular skill. By providing choices students can determine how to master their learning targets. For example, while learning about fractions, the teacher can provide students with choices of different learning content. The student can learn about fractions while watching a Zaption video, practice working with fractions through online games, work in collaborative groups to create a project that uses fractions, and/or learn from the teacher in a small group setting on how to solve different fractions.

Student-driven learning pace. Students can get a personalized experience when they set their own pace-they can spend more time with challenging material and move past concepts as they grasp them. For example, if a student masters a concept, the teacher can skip him or her along through the unit. The student will work in the area where he or she needs to learn more about a concept, rather than waste their time on a concept they already understand. If a student struggles with a concept, then the teacher can slow him or her down and walk through the sections, re-teaching a concept as needed.

Student-determined place of learning. Students can take advantage of online resources at home, in a library, in the classroom, or anywhere with Internet access.

And, the data. Teachers take learning data to inform instruction in ways to best facilitate their students' individualized learning paths. For example, a teacher will determine if a student needs to reassess their path based on the data. If a certain path is not supporting his or her learning, the teacher will work with the student to find other paths that better support their needs.

Blended Learning Helps Students

Blended learning has the ability to not only improve student growth, but also keep students engaged in their learning. According to Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker of the Christensen Institute, "done right, blended learning breaks through the barriers…It preserves the benefits of the old and provides new benefits—personalization, access and equity, and cost control [5]."

Before becoming a blended learning coach, I taught second and fifth grade students. When I first brought blended learning into my classroom in Worthington, OH my students were given the flexibility to move on to more challenging concepts at their own pace. They began grasping material faster than ever before. The result was more than two years worth of academic growth for 100 percent of my students within the course of a single school year, as measured by NWEA'S Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, a computer adaptive interim assessment tool that teachers can use to evaluate student learning growth periodically throughout the school year. One student, in particular, came into my classroom reading at a second-grade level. By taking advantage of data from the MAP assessment, technology, and small group instruction, blended learning helped the student leave my classroom reading and writing at a fourth-grade level.

Now that I work as a coach with teachers across the United States, I have seen other educators achieve extremely promising results with their students from this approach. For example, at Yeshivat Noam, a school in Paramus, NJ, students' reading scores almost doubled after we integrated blended learning strategies into the school day.

In 2014 I worked with an English language arts teacher to use data to drive classroom instruction. We created a list of topics for which the students needed extra help and support, and grouped the students into ability groups based on the data. Our weekly coaching meetings explored reading data from Achieve 3000, an online program, and we created lists of online and offline activities that targeted student learning needs. By the end of the year, students' reading scores improved significantly.

Possibilities and results aside, if teachers do not have access to the right kind of data, blended learning is rarely successful. Numbers mean little if they aren't collected from high-quality assessments that provide accurate, precise and real-time data about student learning. The MAP assessment, for example, has been extremely useful to me and to many of the educators I work with. It allows teachers to check in on students' progress in reading and math at key points in the year without taking up more than an hour of classroom time. In a blended learning setting, MAP is particularly useful because it provides very specific information about what each student has already grasped and what they're ready to learn next—allowing teachers to identify online resources that can best help students grow further.

Tips for Getting Started with Blended Learning

For those teachers looking to get started with blended learning or to enhance the current model they use in their classrooms, I recommend keeping four things in mind:

  • Start small: Identify natural opportunities to build more flexibility into your curriculum and take advantage of topics that adapt well to online learning.
  • Develop a framework for rotating learning stations: You'll want to develop a set of three to four stations for your classroom—and practice using them—where students can experience technology-enhanced learning, hands-on activities, and small group and one-on-one instruction with a teacher. The station rotation model is among the most commonly used blended learning models [6].
  • Integrate assessment and data into your instructional process: Blended learning just won't work without high-quality, precise data about each student's progress. Student learning objectives, based on the data, should guide teachers in their search for effective online resources. Doing so opens their practice to the millions of standards-aligned free resources that are readily available through platforms such as Khan Academy and the RIT to Resource tool designed by NWEA.
  • Manage your resources efficiently: Teachers can save and organize their online resources using management tools such as Symbaloo, PowerMyLearning, and BlendSpace. These and other tools make it easier than ever for educators to develop targeted, blended content and instruction and accelerate growth and achievement for each and every student.

Blended learning has the power to engage students and help them take ownership of their learning in ways that are not always possible in a traditional classroom. Teachers are able to take key steps toward providing instruction that is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. The ever-increasing abundance of high-quality, and often free, online resources to which teachers have access has opened instructional gateways that have previously been available only to the very few. Now, by introducing blended learning into their classrooms, all teachers are able to provide differentiated instruction that responds to students' learning needs and to student interests. This is the very essence of great teaching and learning.


[1] Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. Changing Course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group, 2013.

[2] Blackboard. Defining Blended Learning. Blackboard Blog. February 4, 2014.

[3] Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. What is blended learning?

[4] Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., and Staker, H. Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. White paper. May 2013.

[5] Horn, M.B., and Staker, H. Blended Learning Is About More Than Technology. Education Week. December 10, 2014.

[6] Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Blended Learning Definitions.

About the Author

As a blended learning coach, Marcia Kish has been working and implementing the blended and personalized learning model across the country. Her most recent projects have been working with schools to implement rotation blended learning that focuses in on using data to drive the learning that allow students to move at their own pace, place, and path. Kish has presented workshops on blended learning at OETC 2014/15, ISTE 2014/15, the College Campus Technology Conference 14, NWEA Fusion East 2014, the Teaching and Learning iPad Conference, CUE 2015, and SITE 2015. She has 17 years of teaching experience. Eleven of those years were working for Worthington City Schools as a classroom and technology teacher; four years as a professional development coordinator and blended learning coach for DSD Professional Development; and one year as a director of a blended learning school in Central Ohio. Kish graduated from the University of Dayton with her bachelor's degree in elementary education in 1998. She earned her master's degree in instructional technology K-12 in 2007 from National University. She is also an adjunct professor for Ashland University in Ohio.

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  • Wed, 01 Mar 2017
    Post by Khalil Jones

    As a first year instructor with a diverse classroom blending learning will assist me a great deal. The Canvas platform will improve not only instruction but will assist students in maximizing their effectiveness in each class.

  • Sat, 19 Sep 2015
    Post by Kevin Porter

    This is a great resource on Blended Learning. I loved reading about your experience with the blended classroom technology.

    I actually just compiled a really thorough guide of Blended Learning of my own. I think you might find it interesting to read. Take a look if you get a chance:

    Looking forward to more such delightful reads from your feed.

    p.s. : If you are not a fan of lengthy text, here is a summary infographic titled What is Blended Learning