Ulrik Christensen Discusses the Principles and Cognitive Science Behind SmartBook®

Published September 16, 2015

Dr. Ulrik Juul Christensen is an expert in adaptive learning analytics and technologies.

Q: What are the psychological or cognitive science principles upon which SmartBook is designed? What would you tell a Psychology professor about SmartBook?

Ulrik: There are three main principles upon which SmartBook is built. The first is the idea that all students learn differently and that there is not just one way to achieve proficiency or knowledge in an area. (For example, we see that some learners will learn better if they try something hard and fail and then have to go backwards and build their skills up to meet the challenge; others will benefit from learning step by step and only tackling a challenge when they have mastered the necessary building blocks.) That’s why we don’t have a very prescriptive approach or a set of prerequisite maps that we route students through. We respect the uniqueness of each learner.

The second principle refers to metacognitive skills. In SmartBook, we ask students to rate their level of confidence after answering each question. What completely sets us apart is the way we use that response. Without the student even realizing it, this process prompts the student for an additional ultra short term repetition. However, the main purpose is to help the student get better at understanding what he or she does not know. With SmartBook over time, students get faster and faster at being able to acknowledge they have a learning gap or a blind spot somewhere. In this way, we can make them systematically better at metacognition.

Then there’s a third principle that has to do with motivation. How do you make sure that students stay motivated while doing something that is actually harder than regular homework? With homework, it’s easy to simply “get it done” and feel good about it. With SmartBook, you continue until you are totally proficient, which can often require much more work. So how do we maintain student motivation? We change the level of challenge to engage each student very dynamically. So if you’ve been struggling, we give you something easier so that you get that feeling of success sooner. After all, one of the things that stops students from learning is the feeling of failure. Students need to feel accomplishment. Yes, affording students that sense of accomplishment can sometimes slow down the efficiency of the process but the alternative is worse—losing motivation.

Q: While designing SmartBook, what did you learn about the efficacy of instructional content?

Ulrik: One of the things we’ve learned is that content producers have a hard time predicting what students will struggle with. Over the last several years of generating enormous amounts of data, we’ve learned that it’s not enough to have experts try to predict what students will have difficulty with. We have to have them respond to their actual learning needs. We did a study to inform our content development efforts. We found that our instructional designers who are typically world leading subject matter experts and experienced educators have a less than 10% success rate at anticipating what students needed. The students didn’t need 8 - 9 out of the 10 resources that were authored pre-release. But then, on the other end, only 10% of what we could tell from the statistics that students really needed, was actually covered. So essentially, with that model, there was about a 1% precision in anticipating student needs. So instead of just relying on authors, instructors, and teachers to determine instructional content, we measure the actual efficacy of content and use statistics around student performance to determine how we’re going to evolve that content going forward.

Q: How does SmartBook account for students’ tendency to forget material after they have mastered it?

Ulrik: With SmartBook and LearnSmart, we are predicting when students are going to forget material and when they should they optimally revisit material in order to stay current and competent. To accomplish this, we look at a number of different factors. We look at their path to proficiency and their confidence score—whether it was a slam dunk and they got it immediately or whether they took a very long time and were unsure. Based on this and other information, SmartBook tells students what they should revisit and what the timeline should look like. In this way, we help students have healthier study patterns. While they are learning new material, they are also revisiting and recharging material learned in the past.

Q: What is “preview mode” in SmartBook?

Ulrik: We’ve found that when the best students study, they will first look through the chapter to get an overview of the material and develop a rough structure in their minds. They will then fill in the gaps when they go back through, typically reading a chapter several times as they develop an increasingly detailed understanding of the content. With Preview mode, we’re trying to replicate this experience for every student. Preview familiarizes students with key learning objectives and establishes a framework for all the material that is about to come. It’s a way to help scaffold knowledge about a chapter. Depending on learning preferences, preview mode has a big impact for some students and less of an impact for others.

Q: Many instructors say that it’s students’ “own responsibility” to learn how to read. How does SmartBook help students learn the material and ensure that they take responsibility for their own learning at the same time?

Ulrik: I think most psychologists would agree that if you drill or practice an activity many times, the likelihood of that activity becoming instinctive and habitual becomes very great. I have a hard time imagining that all of students’ practice with SmartBook would not transfer over to normal reading. At the least, SmartBook gets students into the habit of reading something many times over which is a positive, productive thing

Q: Does SmartBook benefit readers of all levels? Does it help for advanced readers as well as intermediate and beginning readers? Is it possible to “outgrow SmartBook”?

Ulrik: While the highlighting aspect of SmartBook is perhaps a bit more useful for the weaker readers than the stronger ones, the “accounting” that we do with regard to Recharge (when you should review learned material) is useful for everyone. No matter how good you are, it’s impossible to read through dense, academic material on your first try and grasp it in its entirety. And even if you are exceptional in this regard, you will have forgetting curves and need to recharge what you have learned.

Q: Studies show that students love SmartBook: over 90% reported that SmartBook would impact their studying in a positive way. How do you think SmartBook facilitates this kind of high engagement? Why do you think students love SmartBook? What do you think accounts for the “enjoyment factor” in SmartBook?

Ulrik: Students are motivated by genuine accomplishment. With LearnSmart and SmartBook, not only do students have a sense of mastery and genuine progression but also a sense of where they came from and where they might go in their learning. In other words, we make sure that learners know they are learning and experience satisfaction as a result. The fact that we don’t have to resort to tricks and elaborate gamification to drive motivation reflects the level of satisfaction we’re creating on an intrinsic level.


About the Author

Ulrik Juul Christensen, M.D.


Ulrik Juul Christensen joined McGraw-Hill Education as Senior Fellow, Digital Learning, in February 2014. Ulrik is a key member of the McGraw-Hill Education team striving to reimagine learning through adaptive and personalized learning. He has given numerous keynote lectures worldwide and is recognized as an expert in learning technology, having pioneered advancements in adaptive learning, data-driven content development, computer simulation, and debriefing technologies. Ulrik co-founded Area9 in 2006, which was at the helm of redefining the standards of adaptive and personalized learning. In 2008, Area9 entered into an agreement with McGraw-Hill Education to develop the adaptive learning engine behind McGraw-Hill Education’s industry-leading suite of LearnSmart products. Area9 was acquired by McGraw-Hill Education in February 2014. Ulrik holds a medical degree from the University of Copenhagen.