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What is Adaptive Learning? A Complete Guide for Educators

How you can meet the individual needs of all students.

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By Anneda Nettleton

What is adaptive learning

As an educator, you may have heard a little bit about adaptive learning and the benefits it can provide for students. But exactly what is adaptive learning? And how can you use it in your educational environment as a teacher, instructional designer, course creator, or trainer?

Let’s start with an example of something that happens in classrooms all across the world every single day – as a seasoned teacher, I’ve seen it myself time and again.

A veteran teacher has been noticing many of her students are struggling with reading comprehension skills. Their ability to make inferences, analyze character development, and use context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words is sporadic at best.

And, while the teacher knows she needs to address these learning gaps, she feels bad for some students who are ready to read and interact with more intellectually stimulating texts.

How can she balance it all? This is where incorporating an adaptive learning process can help!

What is Adaptive Learning?

Delivering custom learning experiences that address a learner’s unique needs is known as adaptive learning. This may include just-in-time feedback, problem-based learning, resources, and pathways that make learning truly individualized. The process of differentiation aligns well with the concept of Adaptive Learning models.

Adaptive learning relies on individualized considerations.

A learner’s information, behaviors, and benchmarks are aligned to adapt the learning experience accordingly.

When a learner is completing tasks and/or lessons, the way learners perform is analyzed, as well as the behaviors associated with the learner’s completion.

It can also be beneficial to determine how the learner felt during the process. This can also help educators learn more about the learner’s preferred learning style and what resources and processes best align with their needs.

Real-time feedback is another component of adaptive learning. Students receive help when it is needed. This may include hints, explanations of misconceptions, and other scaffolding to assist in successful learning.

The differentiated pathways that are used in conjunction with adaptive learning technology can help deliver strategic content to students.

Each student may be given extra help with a particular concept before progressing to the next lesson or topic. This allows students to determine if they need more help with a topic, are ready to be challenged with fast-track advanced lessons, or even what they will learn next.

The Benefits of Adaptive Learning

There are many benefits of adaptive learning systems. While it is hard to capture the essence of just how drastically this can change the learning environment, awareness of its many benefits will aid instructors in seeing how favorably it can impact the learning community. Here’s a look at the benefits I’ve found in my years of education:

  • One-to-one instruction. Adaptive learning truly focuses on the individual student. The algorithms used in adaptive learning technology are able to determine what the learner needs based on authentic tasks and responses. This means of dispersing content and creating a personalized learning path of sorts emulates one-to-one instruction which can be essential to today’s world.
  • Access to necessary remediation. Adaptive learning systems enable students to get extra help with content and specific lessons to obtain mastery. From introductory materials to remedial lessons, case studies, and exploration of previously covered concepts, students can get the remediation they need.
  • Access to enrichment activities. Students can access a variety of materials, including accelerated lessons to challenge themselves. Rather than being bored once the materials presented are mastered, adaptive learning allows students to complete enrichment activities to take their learning to the next level.
  • Communication and collaboration. The adaptive learning approach allows students and instructors to communicate in a unique way. They can collaborate on projects, complete peer review activities, and communicate via an open dialogue that can be easier to monitor and remain on task than face-to-face communication.
  • A variety of content sources. Adaptive learning technology can include a variety of content that is sourced from publisher content, customer-generated content, teacher-curated and created content, and more. Taking time to find what is available and how it can be accessed should be done as part of the planning process.
  • Elevates the teaching experience. Teachers are able to accomplish more with less using this instructional model. This can promote higher success for all students. More personalized learning means that the lessons are more inclusive of different learning needs. This means at-risk and advanced learners can both get what they need.
  • Improved learning outcomes. Every single student can have improved learning outcomes when adaptive learning technology is used with diligence and care. This process allows learners to continue their studies even when they do not have direct access to an instructor.
  • Greater time efficiency. Learners can progress through courses and specific concepts with greater efficiency using a personalized approach. Rather than repeating content that learners already know, they can focus on content that helps them become more competent. This can be a huge time saver.
  • Assessments determine what learners know. A variety of assessments are used to assess what learners know. Learners are asked to answer questions about content they claim to know. This method assists in determining what is needed for personalized learning and subsequent feedback.

Adaptive Learning Drawbacks

There are a few drawbacks associated with the adaptive learning instructional model; nonetheless, awareness of these drawbacks can assist in properly planning to avoid those as much as possible.

  • Lacking research backing. While there are many people quick to claim how wonderful adaptive learning programs are, its newness means there are not a lot of research studies providing its effectiveness. Rather than completing studies, many universities proceeded with developing the algorithms needed for adaptive learning programs. For this reason, evidence is lacking to see how effective it truly is.
  • How do I find resources? Adaptive learning programs are only as good as the resources available. Many universities are partnering with the Gates Foundation to develop adaptive learning programs tailored to virtual-based instruction. These programs may require some getting used to and a starting point may require some search to find what one truly needs. Someone will have to carefully assess what resources there are to determine what is out there.
  • Willingness to accept change. Implementing an adaptive learning program requires an educator who is willing to transition from traditional teaching. This can be challenging and requires a commitment to obtain mastery. If teachers cannot utilize the program effectively, it will be hard for students to reach mastery.
  • Students must be willing to put in the effort. Adaptive learning requires a commitment from students if they are going to reach a mastery level. They need to be motivated to study and try hard. Without working diligently to move on, students will be unable to reach the next step within the program. Also, since the learners are at the mercy of the algorithm, they won’t move on until it says they are ready to proceed. This standstill feeling can be hard to keep students motivated.
  • Data overload. Adaptive learning means the instructor has a lot of data to work through. The adaptive learning program generates a lot of data that educators may not have the time or know-how to properly disaggregate. Close examination of the data to determine student learning patterns can be overwhelming and time-consuming.
  • Adaptive learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. While adaptive learning is wonderful and can certainly provide individualized learning and customized resources, it is not a magic bullet. Some classes are simply not appropriate for this format. Other times, the desired results aren’t obtained because the data is not being used effectively.

Tips for Making Adaptive Learning a Success

Overcoming the drawbacks associated with adaptive learning technology can be done by applying the following tips.

  • Promote a culture of learning. Set an atmosphere centered around continuous learning. Instill a sense of pride and motivation in students to keep them working towards mastery.
  • Using collaborative learning tools. Peer-to-peer interactions will help learners share their knowledge on specialized topics. This can be great for keeping students engaged and moving through the content. Collaboration between students working at the same levels can provide a win-win situation for teachers and students.
  • Secure learner data sources. Make sure that you have sufficient data to get learners started on the right pathways. Whether using manual assessments (check out these quiz makers) or adaptive learning technology to assess learning, knowing where they are at in their progression and providing immediate feedback will help get them started efficiently and more maximum effectiveness.
  • Focus on relevant content. What do your learners need? Finding adaptive learning technology that addresses gaps is critical to success. A personalized learning system means that learners can be highly impacted without feeling overwhelmed. Not all content will pair well with adaptive learning, so it is important for teachers to take this into consideration before deploying such content.
  • Customization, customization, customization! Adaptive learning and personalized learning go hand in hand. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are the same. Personalized learning is a progressive learning journey that is made up of customized learning experiences. Adaptive learning is one means by which to provide such customization. So, while adaptive learning is NOT personalized learning, adaptive learning can be used to disseminate personalized learning.

A Final Word on Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning is a way to increase learning while decreasing frustration.

Learners can find a pathway based on their assessment data to complete a personalized learning plan that includes adaptive learning technology.

Through this process, students requiring remediation can work at their level, whereas students who read for more rigorous content can get that too!

By thinking of all that adaptive learning has to offer, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Using the previously mentioned tips will aid anyone in getting started. Your students are waiting for their own unique adaptive learning opportunities.

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