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How Adaptive Learning is Transforming Teaching and Learning

  • 4 Min Read

It enables learners to stay on a confident path of learning and instructors to deliver more dynamic instruction.


There’s a good reason why adaptive learning technology was number one on Gartner’s list of top 10 strategic technologies impacting higher education in 2015 and 2016: it transforms teaching and learning for the better.

What adaptive learning does

Adaptive learning employs technology, algorithms, and curation to help learners remain on a confident path of learning while avoiding the pitfalls of boredom or frustration. For instructors, it can provide deep insights into how a student, a group of students, or a piece of curriculum is performing—adaptive learning technology gathers data on students’ knowledge, skills and confidence and uses it to modify materials or tasks presented to a student.

At its core, adaptive learning technology is about enabling instructors to help learners drive better learning outcomes through personalization. According to a study of colleges employing adaptive learning tech by learning science company McGraw-Hill Education (which works with D2L), adaptive learning technology improves student retention by as much as 20 percentage points, and pass rates by as much as 13 percentage points. And in a time of unprecedented budget constraints, human resource limitations, burgeoning class sizes, a completion crisis, and an increasingly complex, tech-savvy student demographic, the opportunity to use adaptive learning to better engage learners and drive completion is huge.

While the way adaptive learning is implemented can vary by discipline, learning community (K-12 versus higher education, for instance) and the purpose of an academic program, it can help to facilitate a continuum of learning that transcends experiences.

“The role that adaptive learning plays is actually quite similar at many grade levels,” says Stephen Laster, Chief Digital Officer at McGraw-Hill Education. “For teachers, both that community college teacher and that K-12 teacher, it’s about arming them with deeper insights into where areas of struggle or where areas of acceleration exist within their student populations while allowing them to operate in the pedagogy and teaching style that works for them.”

How to implement adaptive learning technology

Effectively implementing adaptive learning technology starts with rigorous curriculum design, well-researched and thoughtfully implemented technology, and professional development for educators where necessary—all brought to bear with a deep focus on making sure that instructors are comfortable and capable, and that students have a seamless and engaging experience.

The experience itself needs to be intuitive and engaging, and learners and instructors should feel that it’s time-efficient and effective. It needs to involve a journey that allows for frequent student gains—what that looks like is largely dependent on specific academic design. Lastly, feedback should be structured so that the students understand where they are in the journey, where they’ve been, where they’re going, their successes, and the progress they’ve made so they can best optimize their time and energies.

How adaptive learning technology benefits instructors

Adaptive learning technology allows instructors to engage with students more as a coaches, mentors, and leaders. According to the McGraw-Hill Education study, it enables instructors to spend 72% less time on administrative tasks and 90% more time on active learning experiences, and with the kinds of insights it offers up, that means much more dynamic semesters.

While instructors still need to plan curriculum, lessons, and set goals and learning objectives, adaptive learning technology offers real-time feedback. They can use that feedback to quickly identify areas to emphasize in instruction based on student engagement with things like last night’s homework or in-class group work. Teachers are empowered to incrementally fine-tune learning within the bigger framework of the course or semester and engage with learners more authentically and meet their needs more proactively, providing personalized guidance based on deeper insights.

How adaptive learning technology benefits students

Adaptive learning can really make a difference in the classroom. According to the McGraw-Hill Education study, colleges employing an adaptive learning environment that integrated assignments, grading, and course content saw a 15% increase in the number of students that earned A’s and B’s. Student engagement with practicing concepts and homework tends to be higher with adaptive learning technology than without it because students are engaging with learning activities that are presented at the right time for the right purpose.

It comes down to students spending more productive time on tasks based on the ability to progress at a rate that’s more comfortable to them. Comfort is the key. And, by enabling insightful instructor feedback and providing screen-based awards and badges to promote and reward progress, adaptive learning technology instills confidence in students, particularly those that struggle. It changes the way learning happens and that’s a powerful thing.

Written by:

Jon Paul

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Table of Contents

  1. What adaptive learning does
  2. How to implement adaptive learning technology
  3. How adaptive learning technology benefits instructors
  4. How adaptive learning technology benefits students