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6 Scientific Principles Behind Adaptive Learning

What is Adaptive Learning?

Adaptive learning technologies are popping up all over higher education. The premise is this: Students learn at different rates and some need more help than others. The adaptive component of these technologies means that the algorithm changes for each student based on how they answer questions. If a student answers many successive questions correctly, that student may complete the assignment after demonstrating for example expertise on 20 questions. However, if a student is struggling with a concept and answers several questions incorrectly, the program recognizes that the student needs additional learning opportunities and adds additional questions to the assignment. That student may need to answer 40 questions to complete the assignment.  In addition to mastery assessment, these technologies are also typically sensitive to timing and engagement, ensuring that students cannot simply blindly click on answers in order to “finish” the assignment. The guiding principle being that assignment completion occurs only after a student has reached a specific level of proficiency with the material.

But beyond the hype, what are the scientific principles of how these adaptive technologies are helping students to better learn course material?

  1. Immediate feedback boosts learning.

Feedback is necessary for correcting errors and effectively learning class material [1 – 2]. When students receive immediate feedback about an incorrect answer, they can immediately correct their misconceptions and stop to learn more about why they may have had those misconceptions. The longer misconceptions linger, the more permanent and harmful they become. Unfortunately, we cannot be by our students’ sides to provide immediate feedback 24/7 and by the time we review exams in class and work in class, it is often too late. The misconceptions have already taken their toll on students’ grades.

Research shows that immediate corrective feedback is much more effective than delayed feedback [3 – 4], and this is not always possible if we only provide feedback in class. Adaptive learning technologies are there for students 24/7 and provide immediate feedback on a question-by-question basis so that students can learn at their own pace and correct misconceptions as they progress through class material.

  1. Repeated testing boosts learning.

Contrary to what students would like to hear, testing is a critical part of learning. A multitude of research studies show that students have greater learning outcomes when they take a formal test, not self-quizzing before they take a graded test for class [5 – 10]. In order to learn effectively, information must be entered, or encoded, into memory and then retrieved when it is time to recall it on an exam. When students learn, they are encoding the to-be-remembered information into memory. However, they rarely practice retrieving that information from memory. In essence, they spend a great deal of time pouring information into their brains but do not necessarily know how to find, or retrieve, it when they need it. Repeated testing provides opportunities for students to practice retrieving that information and correct any retrieval glitches before the big exam.

  1. Low-stakes testing boosts learning…and confidence.

I recently polled my students to find out how many enjoy exams. Surprise, surprise: none of them enjoy exams. Instead, most students report experiencing test anxiety and dread exams. When adaptive learning assignments are due weekly, they become a regular part of classwork. Every week, students answer multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, multi-select, matching, etc. questions in a non-threatening, low-stakes situation. Engaging in a pseudo-testing situation on a regular basis de-stigmatizes test-taking and reduces overall test anxiety [11 – 12]. These assignments are not worth as many points as exams and as a result, students do not perceive them as threatening to their overall class grade. Frequently engaging in low-stakes quizzing also improves student learning by helping students to regularly assess what they have and have not learned [13 – 15].

  1. Learning is best when the difficulty is just right.

Learning is a little like Goldilocks: students will not learn successfully if the material is too easy or too difficult. It must be just right. If the material is too easy, students will stop paying attention and tune out. If the material is too difficult, students will become cognitively overloaded, lose confidence, and will lose the motivation to learn. When the material is just difficult enough, students pay attention, engage in problem-solving to fill in gaps, and gain confidence when they overcome the challenge of learning the material [16 – 18]. It is impossible for us as teachers to know what the level of desirable difficulty there is for each student and on top of that to meet each student where they are one-on-one. Adaptive learning solves this problem. If Jenny knows all about this week’s material and answers several consecutive questions correctly, an adaptive learning program will adjust its algorithm and provide her with more challenging questions. If John is struggling with this week’s material and answers several consecutive questions incorrectly, an adaptive learning program will adjust its algorithm and provide him with less challenging questions until he has mastered the topic. Jenny and John will both master the material, but with their own custom algorithms that meet them where they are.

  1. Adaptive technologies build metacognitive awareness.

Quick! What is the capital city of Alaska? Are you sure? How confident are you in your answer?

The answer, by the way, is Juneau. Did you answer correctly?

Some people are confident that they know the answer right away, whereas others may have guessed at the answer but were unsure if they were correct. When you assessed your confidence, you engaged in metacognitive awareness. Metacognitive awareness is simply thinking about your thoughts and is critical for learning [19 – 23]. Adaptive learning technologies can promote increased metacognitive awareness by prompting students to think about how well they know a piece of information before they answer a question. Engaging in this cognitive process across many questions builds the skill of metacognitive awareness. If students are aware of what they know and what they do not know, they can make better decisions about what they need to study. This skill will also transfer to exams. Rather than just barreling through questions as quickly as they can, students will be more reflective of their answers before moving on.

  1. Adaptive technologies keep students motivated.

We all face the challenge of motivating our students throughout the semester. A good student may fall behind and lose confidence. A struggling student may never quite “get” the material. Adaptive learning can help motivate students to achieve their goals and keep them motivated throughout the semester. Through repeated quizzing, students learn that they can conquer testing and that they do not have to fear it. By personalizing the learning experience, adaptive learning technologies empower students to realize that they can successfully learn class material as long as they show persistence. Pursuing and achieving these small goals across the semester builds grit and confidence that carries through to other learning experiences. [See 24 – 28.]

Adaptive learning technologies provide an equal opportunity for learning experiences.

Adaptive learning technologies can help students learn the material more efficiently and effectively. It helps target the learning experience to the needs of each student. Students who need extra help receive additional learning opportunities and students who quickly demonstrate their expertise do not need to expend extra time. All students, regardless of their prior knowledge, experience, background, and skill level have opportunities to achieve the same goal: to successfully learn the material and do well in class.


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About the Author

Heather R. Collins earned her Ph.D. in Psychological and Brain Sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed five-years of postdoctoral research in brain imaging. She is presently a speaker, consultant, and Biostatistician at the Medical University of South Carolina. As Chair of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department at Trident Technical College, she taught psychology and improved teaching and evaluating critical thinking in psychology, sociology, political science, geography, and anthropology courses. Dr. Collins is passionate about communicating the impact of psychology and neuroscience on everyday life to a wide variety of audiences including college students, instructors, business professionals, and seasoned adults. Her popular TEDx Talk, Successful Thinking: It’s a Know-Brainer has 20,000+ views:

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