Adapting Well

Integrating a vital learning technology in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Troy Williams

CREDIT Macmillan New Ventures imageOne of the biggest trends in educational technology today is adaptive learning, which uses technology and tools that adjust to a student’s learning needs. By shaping the learning experience to the unique needs of the individual student, the result is a more effective approach to helping each student succeed. Adaptive learning can lead to better student performance—but getting the technology to work with instructors in a way that gives students the chance to achieve deeper and more efficient learning is a challenge in itself.

The technology works with the student to go beyond simply giving right or wrong responses, offering the student further interaction to help them achieve mastery.

No two students learn in the exact same way, which is why adaptive learning technology is such a game changer. These tools can help identify which areas the student needs to spend more time on, and allow them to advance in areas in which they have shown comprehension. The technology works with the student to go beyond simply giving right or wrong responses, offering the student further interaction to help them achieve mastery. Students won’t just be hearing the material—they will truly process the information. In allowing students to progress at the pace they are comfortable with, the learning experience will become more rewarding for them.

Integrating this technology into classrooms can be intimidating and logistically difficult, as the tools need to be seamless in order to ensure that the technology will not get in the way of learning. However, the benefits of adaptive learning technology far outweigh the costs—especially for instructors. This technology allows instructors to focus less on delivering content to the class, giving them the opportunity to support individual students in areas where they need more guidance. What’s more, instructors can use real-time data in order to maximize class performance as a whole. If one particular area is stumping a large percentage of the class, the instructor can step in and offer a lecture on that topic. On the other hand, if the majority of the students are quickly understanding another topic, the instructor can spend more time focusing on another area rather than wasting time on something their students have already mastered.

In order to enhance a classroom without being a burden or interference, adaptive learning tools have to be user-friendly for both students and instructors. It’s essential that these tools quickly and easily adapt to the abilities of each student, but they must also work with the skill levels of the instructors. If an instructor can’t work with the tool, it is no longer beneficial to the classroom. In order to justify the costs associated with these tools, they must also be reusable and offer flexibility, allowing instructors to add, remove, or edit content as needed.

While results are currently limited for this technology, they are also rather impressive. Preliminary findings from Arizona State University’s adaptive learning efforts have shown an 18 percent increase in pass rates along with a 47 percent decrease in student withdrawals. In a controlled study across six public universities, students enrolled in Open Learning Initiative’s introductory statistics course completed the course 25 percent faster than students in a face-to-face version of the course (Newman, 2013).

This technology goes beyond simple learning concepts, offering personalized experiences for complex science and math courses as well. While these tools may seem daunting or irrelevant to an instructor with a lab-heavy course, they can help students feel more at home in the wet lab thanks to virtual lab environments that allow students to mix chemicals, familiarize themselves with the equipment, and even perform experiments. Adaptive learning tools help students feel less overwhelmed by advanced courses, giving them a greater chance of success. In fact, the introduction of online adaptive tutorials in a foundational Engineering Mechanics course at the at the University of New South Wales led to a decline in the drop-out rate from 31 percent down to 14 percent (Newman, 2013).

The introduction of adaptive learning tools to the classroom in no way diminishes the importance of the instructor. As data is gathered, instructors will play a vital role as they interpret the findings and use this new information to tailor their courses to meet the needs of their students. There will be a learning curve as instructors figure out how to integrate the technology with their curriculum, but the payoff will be a more streamlined process for their future students. Adaptive learning tools are here to empower instructors, not to replace them. With time, we will see just how important this educational technology is for the next generation of learners.


Newman, Adam. “Learning to Adapt: A Case for Accelerating Adaptive Learning in Higher Education.” Tyton Partners. 2013. Retrieved July 28, 2015 from

Troy Williams is President and General Manager of Macmillan New Ventures, where he is responsible for identifying emerging technologies and trends that will have a major impact on student performance and outcomes. Follow @MacmillanNV


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