A look at the efficacy of an adaptive learning platform

adaptive-learning-collegeSandra Connelly, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said when she teaches a general biology course, she’s always struck by how varied her students are.

“This year, I have almost 65 different majors spread across 400 students,” Connelly said. “Teaching them is a matter of trying to keep the attention of business majors, art majors, poetry majors, and then physicians assistance majors who really need this biology background.”

So, in 2009, she started using Pearson’s adaptive learning platform called Mastering in an attempt to create a more personalized experience. It’s really helped, Connelly said, and, of course, Pearson is happy to report the same. But the company no longer expects anecdotes like Connelly’s to be enough evidence that their products are effective.

To highlight the efficacy of the data-rich platform, Pearson is now releasing some data of its own.

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In a new study, called the 2014 Efficacy Report, Pearson examines five universities that use Mastering products, including Rochester, State University of New York at Buffalo, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Genesse Community College, and Clinton Community College.

At Rochester, exam grades rose by six to eight percentage points, according to the report.

“Grades are better, conversations are better,” Connelly said. “If they don’t come in prepared, there is a lot of peer pressure form their group members to be prepared.”

(Next page: How much did adaptive learning improve other colleges?)

The focus on efficacy is part of a now company-wide policy at Pearson. Late last year, the company released a report arguing that efficacy in education is ‘as possible and as pressing’ as in healthcare. A website and division of the company were created to solely focus on efficacy.

“Our CEO has made a very public announcement that by 2018 we’ll be reporting on the efficacy of Pearson products alongside our financial results,” said John Tweeddale, senior vice president of Efficacy & Quality. “We set a high bar for ourselves. We think it’s the right bar.”

The 2014 Efficacy Report is an early step toward that goal. The report can also be seen as validation of the efficacy of adaptive learning technologies as whole, Tweeddale said, or at least of the concept.

“This, to me, is really exciting and shows promise of progress toward personalized learning,” he said. “The adaptive tool, the ability to really capture and use the data to identify how a student has responded to particular question or set of assignments then recommend the next set of problems or move the student onto the next topic, really creates a personalized experience.”

The report found that adaptive learning, and Mastering, was successful at more than just the Rochester Institute of Technology.

At the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, student success rates in General Biology I increased by 11 percentage points. The number of students who took the final exam and completed the course rose by three percentage points.

At Robeson Community College, the percentage of students who earned an A grade in spring 2013 was 12 percentage points higher than the highest reported semester where Mastering was not used.

Connelly said adaptive learning likely won’t change an A student to an A+ student, but that it can most certainly help a different group of students.

“What I’m interested are those kids sitting around a 2.0,” she said. “If they slip below that, they go on probation and end up with financial aid issues. If something like this can help those students grasp the material in a required course, then we’ve made a big difference. It can level the playing field.”


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