What is Adaptive Learning?

Dr. Lamont Moore
Dr. Lamont Moore
Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, Gardner-Webb University, NC

Long gone are the days when teachers lecture students in whole-class format and students sit in neatly arranged rows of desks only speaking to teachers when asked. This “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning is not only severely antiquated and flawed, but it has also been proven to be ineffective with students. Over time it has become clear that all students do not learn in the same ways nor do they have the same learning needs. Today’s instruction not only has to reflect evidence of lesson differentiation, but it also must evolve to become a series of personalized learning experiences for students.

What is Adaptive Learning?

Adaptive learning is a data-driven, calculated and personalized approach to instruction and remediation (Educause, 2020). It provides a customized presentation of content, addresses unique student needs, and optimizes real-time feedback that is based on individual student performance (Smart Sparrow, 2020). Adaptive learning is the polar opposite of the one-size-fits-all approach to learning. It can be described very simply as “Differentiation 2.0.”

Differentiation occurs when instructors use student performance data to make strategic tweaks to the content delivery, thinking process, work product, or learning environment in order to meet student needs. Adaptive learning kicks differentiation up a notch by employing a calculated system of real-time adjustments to instruction. These adjustments to instruction create a unique learning pathway that each student must take to achieve content mastery. If differentiation is the canoe traveling across the ocean known as student instruction, then adaptive learning is the luxury cruise ship navigating across that same ocean.

Benefits of Adaptive Learning

The advantages of adaptive learning are immense, however here are some of the key benefits:

  • Students receive the right lesson at the right time and with the right level of difficulty as they progress towards mastery.
  • The students’ prior knowledge becomes the foundation and driving force for their learning experiences.
  • Teachers are able to shift their roles from being the sole content provider to being the facilitator of student learning.
  • Unique gaps in understanding are identified individually and addressed head on with the students.
  • Academic honesty is promoted and cheating is virtually eliminated.
  • Frameworks such as the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and practices such as Response to Intervention (RtI) are fully supported.

Applying Adaptive Learning in the Classroom

Because it is complex and highly calculative in nature, it is difficult for teachers to fully implement adaptive learning through the normal practice of creating detailed lesson plans. Although strategic lesson planning produces differentiation in instruction, adaptive learning in the classroom is usually accomplished through the use of computer-based or online educational systems. These educational systems are able to utilize intricate algorithms (informed by real-time student responses) to provide customized presentations of content at various levels of difficulty. This allows instructional adjustments to be made in a much more efficient manner when compared to traditional lesson planning. These systems become tools that afford teachers with valuable opportunities to expose students to much more in-depth and responsive levels of differentiation which is the heart of what adaptive learning truly is.

It is important to highlight that adaptive learning is only one technique for providing personalized learning for students. Because of its data-informed nature, adaptive learning shows great promise in impacting the individual needs of students. It is not a new concept in education so there are many useful tools available to educators. These tools are great resources that will help educators infuse adaptive learning in schools in order to transform classroom instruction. Below is a list of tools that may serve as a starting point for educators who wish to begin the journey of implementing adaptive learning.

  • Khan Academy – This is a free resource available to students, teachers, and parents that accurately identifies and addresses gaps in learning. Students are able to practice at their own pace and also have the opportunity to accelerate their learning (Khan Academy, 2020).
  • McGraw Hill’s ALEKS – Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) is a learning system that uses adaptive questioning to identify what students know and what they do not know. This program reassesses students periodically to ensure that topics have been retained. One-on-one instruction can also be provided through ALEKS 24/7 for a fee. There are limited subject areas with this tool.
  • Edgenuity – A full suite of courses are available for students that cover the core curriculum, Advanced Placement content, dual credit content, as well as honors and elective content. This adaptive learning tool may also be used to offer credit recovery credits for students (EdTech, 2020).
  • NWEA-MAP – The NWEA-MAP Accelerator provides personalized learning experiences based on students’ performance data. NWEA-MAP also offers an interactive teacher tool (the Learning Continuum) that allows teachers to adapt their instruction to cater to the unique learning gaps for each student. The MAP assessments are also highly adaptive in nature for students and allow educators to get a prediction of the students’ performances on state assessments. NWEA-MAP is aligned to and powered by Khan Academy (NWEA-MAP, 2020).
  • Curriculum Associates’ I-Ready – This tool informs instruction by connecting diagnostic assessment data with personalized instruction. It provides online lessons that are tailored to each student and designed to accelerate growth. Teachers are able to receive real-time feedback regarding the academic needs of the students.
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