The Key Elements of Adaptive Learning

September 7, 2023

Say you’re a math student in a basic mathematics course online, and you take a test on addition. Whether you’re ready to move on to the next lesson studying subtraction should be based on how well you do on your test, right? If you get nine out of 10 questions correct, you’ve shown enough knowledge of the subject of addition to start learning how to subtract. If you only get three questions correct, you have more studying to do and will be returned to an earlier point in the course to practice.

This process is known as adaptive learning, and it seems like common sense when you have a topic of study where one thing builds on another to accumulate knowledge. However, adaptive learning is useful in many other circumstances, too, even those that aren’t as straightforward as a math class. It’s an approach that can be beneficial in both in-person and online learning. If you’ve ever been in a classroom where the teacher had different groups of students moving through material at different paces, you’ve already experienced it. 

What Is Adaptive Learning? 

Adaptive learning, also known as adaptive teaching, aims to personalize the learning experience for all individuals regardless of how they learn best. As Learning Experience Designer Mac Crawford says,

“Adaptive learning is the dream of being able to reach every student exactly where they are when they are there.”

For all learners, whether they’re in elementary school, graduate school, or a corporate education class, time is often an issue. They want to learn what they need to know efficiently, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time on content they already understand. Experiences that utilize adaptive learning can provide effective learning paths for them because it takes into account their individual abilities, knowledge, and the pace at which they learn material. This flexibility allows for a better learning experience, one that helps all learners reach their peak potential.

How Adaptive Learning Works 

Adaptive learning can occur in person or on digital learning platforms. In person, the teacher makes the call about how to change a lesson in real time to accommodate students’ needs; with many learning experience platforms, designers set the parameters to create the adaptive experience for students. Mac explains, “When you design, you essentially design things so intentionally that you create those adaptive paths in advance of rolling out the course. So whereas in a classroom a teacher might be responsive, this way you’d have to go, okay, we’re going to use this assessment as a way of tracking students. If they get this set of questions right or that set of questions right, we’re going to push them in this direction or that. It’s very intricate, and it can be time-consuming and expensive to develop courses that are like that. But the idea is, if you do it on the front end, you build it into the way the product works.” 

So when, for example, a student finishes a task on the platform, the learner is presented with their own best next step. Some students might fly through content; others can take their time. This creates a smoother, less stressful learning environment for everyone. It also avoids the issues of learners feeling frustrated because they’re required to go through content they already know or, as Mac points out, the “emotional impact of feeling talked down to.”

In addition, these platforms often allow for quick grading once a task is completed, which in turn informs the next steps a learner takes. This immediate feedback is useful to both learners and instructors, and it can lead to more meaningful outcomes. 

Benefits of Adaptive Learning 

Every student, no matter how they learn best, can benefit from adaptive learning programs. 

With adaptive learning, students who may have had difficulty in traditional settings can meet their educational goals because these programs are so supportive, creating a less stressful learning environment and a more positive attitude toward learning.

And the benefits of these programs are backed by scientific studies.

Here are just some of the benefits: 

  • Choice of work pace

  • Motivation to complete tasks 

  • Improved student-teacher relationships

  • Support for unique methods of learning 

  • Content tailored to each student 

  • Enhanced study skills 

Another key benefit for the teacher is the fact that they can track how well their students learned their material. Mac explains, “[With adaptive pathways], you can have a much clearer idea of what students know and what they don’t know at the end of a course because if a pathway is adaptive, that says you’re going to spend time on this until you achieve a level of competence in it. Then a student didn’t just sit through the class and know enough to get a passing grade overall. So you can actually validate every learning outcome. This is really impactful when you need at least a level of competence in all areas when it’s not good enough for learners to be very good at some things and very bad at others.” 

A Note on Adaptive Learning Technology 

Before you look into implementing adaptive learning for your digital learning experience platforms or other learning programs, it’s important to note that adaptive learning technology can mean two things. First, it can mean learning technology that’s created to be adaptive, and second, it can refer broadly to any technology that can be used to foster a situation where there’s adaptive learning happening. Mac says, “There are technologies that you can use in a way that allows you to implement adaptive learning. Things like surveys, if they’re being processed by an expert teacher, they’re a tool for adaptive learning.” In such cases, the expert is the factor that makes the adaptive learning take place, using data gathered in something as simple as a Google doc or a SurveyMonkey form. 

“The key idea with adaptive learning is gathering information and using information to adapt what’s happening for the student and the learner,” Mac says, “and any tool that allows you to collect information can be helpful in that, any tool that allows you to parse information, and understand it more quickly and easily.”

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