Adaptive learning helps personalize instruction for students

Adaptive learning has steadily gained popularity in higher education.

Many experts believe adaptive learning will elevate education in the future, and the technology already has found its way into several higher-ed software programs.

In adaptive learning, specially designed computer programs assess students’ subject-matter knowledge and then create individual learning maps based on those findings. If a student struggles in one area, the program repeatedly reinforces that topic, and it lets students progress quickly through areas in which they demonstrate mastery.

In the past few years, multiple learning companies have recognized the trend toward adaptive learning and are vying to create the most successful model that garners the best results for students.

At last year’s EDUCAUSE conference in Denver, McGraw-Hill Education announced that its LearnSmart adaptive learning technology has surpassed 1 million student users since its launch in fall 2009.

Hailed as a “personal digital tutor,” LearnSmart allows students to “study smarter, not longer.” Available in more than 40 subject areas, LearnSmart identifies a student’s weaknesses in a given subject and uses animated online tools to remedy them. Teachers implement LearnSmart into their coursework to ensure that students grasp the subject matter in their own way, and that all students are progressing.

[field name= iframe2]


“This information can prove invaluable in helping educators identify the students that may otherwise fall behind in a course before it is too late,” a recent McGraw-Hill LearnSmart Effectiveness Study explains.

(Next page: How LearnSmart and similar programs are improving learning outcomes)

The Effectiveness Study includes firsthand perspectives from professors who have reported great success with the LearnSmart tools.

“LearnSmart has helped engage the learner in a way that I didn’t think was possible,” said Professor Frank Wray of the University of Cincinnati. “It has also helped me to be a more reflective teacher and pinpoint class issues with a topic.”

McGraw-Hill lets students access LearnSmart using their computers, iPhones, and iPads. Last year, McGraw-Hill Education reported nearly 10,000 downloads of its LearnSmart mobile app, and this year that number hovers around 70,000 app downloads. The program is available for direct purchase for students at a starting price of $24.99.

Remedial math is a national issue in higher education, as many students struggle to master fundamental math and often end up dropping out of college as a result.

To combat these issues, Carnegie Learning developed four subject-based Adaptive Math Solutions that provide interactive instruction to complement college math courses. The four solutions are Bridge to Algebra, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Each subject solution is individually paced based on a student’s “problem areas,” and reinforces tricky concepts.

[field name= iframe3]


Students have to demonstrate mastery of all skills required to solve math problems before they can move through the curriculum.

The software offers formative and summative assessments, as well as immediate feedback, positive reinforcement, and help at each step of a mathematics problem, if necessary. Students can use the products’ “Review Mode” to practice key skills before tests and exams.

The solution’s administrative reports help teachers and school leaders pinpoint trends regarding how students use the software. A “Skillometer” helps students track their progress.

(Next page: How Arizona State has used adaptive learning technology to cut withdrawal rates for remedial math in half)

Knewton, a technology company founded in 2008, aims for personalized online learning as the best vehicle to improving the quality of educational content and making education more accessible.

Knewton has teamed with Arizona State University (ASU) to address a growing mathematics challenge on its campus.

“At ASU, the biggest challenge in general in terms of freshman retention seems to be mathematics,” said Art Blakemore, ASU’s vice provost. “We knew that we needed something to keep the students on track, and that’s what brought us to Knewton.”

ASU implemented the Knewton Math Readiness program, and the partnership has proven successful. Regarding ASU Remedial Math:

  • Pass rates have increased from 64 percent (fall ’09-spring ’11) to 75 percent (fall ’11-spring ’12).
  • Withdrawal rates have decreased from 16 percent (fall ’09-spring ’11) to 7 percent (fall ’11-spring ’12).

“The exciting aspect of Knewton in the classroom, I believe, is that it allows the students to work at a pace that works for them, and I think that it’s going to make a positive difference in their attitudes,” said Scott Surgent, a senior lecturer and associate director of mathematics. “I think they like the freedom to work a little quicker if they’re getting it, [and] if they need some extra time they can catch up on the weekend.”

ASU students also attest that they find the Knewton program to be beneficial to their learning.

“If you want to work faster, it’s not where you just have to sit there and be bored,” said Sabrina Forbes, a university freshman. “You can just move forward, get help when you need it, and just go at your own pace.”

“The platform is continuously adaptive, meaning it responds in real time to each student’s activity on the system and adjusts to provide the most relevant content,” Knewton’s website explains.

After assessing a student’s strengths and weaknesses in a given subject matter, Knewton offers students individualized recommendations of activities and subtopics that may interest them and generally enhance their learning.

[field name= iframe4]


Knewton focuses not only on creating individualized learning maps, but it also tracks the ways that a student interacts with the system: the time of day, number of hours that a student spends on the program, and type of content the student frequently views in order to create a multi-dimensional picture of a student over time.

Within Knewton’s platform guide, its creators and leaders explain how their real-time recommendation engine works, and the theories that they used to guide the creation of their model. In particular, Knewton touts its continuous adaptivity model (as opposed to a more common single-point adaptivity model) as a key to its program’s success.

The more frequently a student uses the Knewton program, the more data are collected by the site, which can offer a student a peek into the mind’s patterns—including where pitfalls and triumphs are located in a particular subject matter. This tool can be strongly effective in helping not only students, but teachers in discovering how to improve their teaching methods, and which subtopics to focus on more heavily in class.

Students who succeed in working through a Knewton program receive “badges,” or points that allow students to move forward in coursework. Badges also let students finish a given course early.


Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.