What Does A Personalized Learning Science Unit Look Like?

Science teacher David Russo from Madison Public Schools, Conn. is part of an innovation project to experiment with personalized learning throughout the year with Allison Zmuda.

Over the past couple of years I have been diving deeper and deeper into teaching in a more student centered, personalized learning kind of way. Every year I have incorporated more student choice including allowing them to choose topics they want to study, choose the order in which they complete assignments, set their own pace (to an extent), and having them ask their own questions about topics important/interesting to them personally.

I have gotten to the point where I no longer lecture to my students. They are 100% responsible for their own learning. I do this in an effort to give them ownership of the learning process and to teach them the life skills of problem solving, responsibility, time management, and self motivation.

Below is an excerpt from what I call the “Unit Syllabus” for the first unit. The students get one of these at the beginning of every unit. It acts as a roadmap for them to navigate the assignments, activities, and expectations of the unit. As you will see it contains an essential question followed by a number of assignments and activities designed to facilitate the gathering of necessary information that will ultimately be used to answer the essential question.

They can work through the assignments at their own pace and in whatever order they choose.

Organization of the Human Body Unit Syllabus


Discover how scientists/doctors communicate with each other about how the human body is organized. You will complete assignments and conduct research to answer the essential question below.

Essential Question

Based on my reading and viewing of medical information … Where is ______ (body part) located/positioned? How is its location/position described in relation to the surrounding organs and structures?

Assignments, Labs, and Activities

Below is a list of the assignments and activities for which you are responsible. You may work on them in any order you choose, though they must all be completed before the end of the “Organization of the Human Body” unit. The essential question, “Where is _______ (body part) located/positioned?” is designed for you to investigate any part of the human body based on the assignments below.

Textbook Reading, Videos, and Questions:
(Reading, videos, and questions are posted on Google Classroom)

  • Read pages 8-10 and 14-16.
  • Watch the following videos:

  • Answer textbook questions 13, 16, 17, 21 and 22 on page 21. (Both the textbook and videos will help you to answer these questions.)
  • Answer the following questions using what you learned by watching the videos:
    1. Describe a person standing in anatomical position.
    2. What does “anatomical right and left” mean?


  • Anatomical terms coloring book page (both sides)
  • Anatomical terms worksheet
  • Play-doh person surgery

A Vehicle for Life Skills

As students complete assignments and turn them in I give comments/feedback in the form of suggestions on how they can make their product better, I grade the assignments, and return them. The students then have the opportunity to read my comments, update their work, and re-submit. This iterative process leads to a more complete product which, in turn, helps them to better answer the essential question for the unit.

In my opinion the course content is merely a vehicle to teach my students the life skills listed above, but when I started on this adventure I was nervous about the answer to one big question.

Would my students learn the content as well as they learned it in a more traditional, teacher centered environment?

I tried not to perseverate on this question, but it was always in the back of my mind.

In years past I didn’t present the first unit in a student centered way. I would teach it more traditionally in order to ensure that my students had a solid foundation and ease them into student centered learning. This year I decided to jump into student centered learning immediately with the first unit and see how the chips fell.

This is the only unit where the assessment is a traditional pen and paper quiz. I decided to give my students the same quiz I have given for the past eight years. No changes were made to accommodate the change in content delivery so I was interested (and terrified) to see how they would do.

Upon beginning to grade the quizzes I was shocked at how well the students did! In one class of 14 students there were six perfect scores! Overall, 50% of my students scored in the 90’s. This is up from 45% in previous years. A modest increase, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting any increase at all! If anything I felt the average grade could have trended downward.

The Nervous System

I have since begun the second unit (The Nervous System) with my students. Much like the first unit there is an essential question:

“How does the structure and function of your nervous system at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels, allow you to perform everyday activities?”

This is followed by the list of assignments, labs, and activities that my students must complete in order to gain the knowledge necessary to answer the essential question.

After speaking with Allison we felt the essential question is quite broad and might be difficult for a high school student to answer without some guidance. She suggested that I create “I can…” statements (which I refer to as “knowledge statements”) that would act as a checklist such that if they could do all of the knowledge statements then they could successfully answer the essential question. Below are the knowledge statements I created:

General Nervous System:

  • I can explain how is the nervous system organized.
  • I can describe the various subsystems of the nervous system and what they do.


  • I can define the term “neuron.”
  • I can list and describe the parts of a neuron and explain their functions.
  • I can explain how neurons communicate with each other.
  • I can list the three types of neurons.
  • I can explain how each type of neurons is different both structurally and functionally.

Spinal Cord:

  • I can describe the structure of the spinal cord.
  • I can describe the functions of the spinal cord.
  • I can explain the function of spinal nerves (including dorsal and ventral roots).
  • I can explain how the spinal cord allows the brain to communicate with the body.


  • I can list the four major parts of the brain, locate them on a model/diagram, and describe their major functions.
  • I can list the four lobes of the cerebral cortex, locate them on the surface of the brain, and describe their major functions.
  • I can list the three parts of the brainstem, locate them on a model/diagram, and describe their major functions.

Moving forward, the plan is to have my students demonstrate their ability to answer the essential question by giving them case studies to analyze and explain.

Case studies allow the students to synthesize all of the information they have gained over the course of the unit and apply it to authentic situations that medical professionals have to deal with on a daily basis.

I’m not there yet, but more to come once it’s done!

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Seda Dawson
6 years ago

This is exactly what I needed. I teach 7th grade science which focuses on human body. Thank you so much for giving me a solid example of student led personalized learning.