College preparedness is a hot topic today among teachers and education administrators. Its no wonder: one-third of today’s college students require remediation; of those students, about half will never receive a college degree. These statistics have serious ramifications for the future: students’ college and career readiness is an essential part of ensuring that America remains competitive in a changing global economy. Fortunately, the advent of technology such as continuous adaptive learning (a teaching method premised on the idea that the curriculum should adapt to each user) can help get students up to speed quickly. Prepared for the rigors of advanced work, students are more likely to flourish at the college level, complete their degrees, and find satisfying work after they graduate.
Here are just a few of the specific ways that adaptive learning can help produce these outcomes:
1. Adaptive learning can ensure that work is pitched at just the right level.
For many students, school work is both unpleasant and unproductive because the work is too difficult, the problems overwhelming. Thus the challenge is to assign work that gets the balance just right: too easy and there’s no satisfaction; too hard, and students will invest effort only to feel frustrated and lose focus. The key to helping students achieve a state of flow (a productive state of total mental immersion) is to escalate the difficulty of the work incrementally, so that students receive a constant stream of questions targeted at the precise level at which thinking and real engagement are likely to occur. Continuous adaptive learning can provide this by determining a student’s ability and “serving up” questions at just the right level.
Of course real life isn’t this simple–you don’t get a series of challenges perfectly calibrated to your level, so that every exertion leads to maximum satisfaction; the hope is, however, that adaptive technology can be harnessed so that students engage productively with schoolwork and are therefore better equipped to tackle “imperfect” challenges of the real world. Think of it this way: an adaptive learning system is like a superior mental work-out machine that leaves you ready to scale intellectual cliffs and undertake marathons of critical thought.
2. Adaptive learning can ensure that work is paced appropriately for each individual.
Many students fall behind because new concepts and knowledge are introduced at the wrong pace for them. An adaptive system can help educators discover the precise way that lectures, assessments, activities, and peer evaluation should be combined to produce maximum learning benefits for each individual. One student, for example, might learn best in the sciences if she absorbs a lecture, is tested on it immediately, and then engages in group work (see our post on Howard Gardner and Embracing Different Learning Styles). In English class, by contrast, that student might see the most gains if she engages in an activity, absorbs some instruction, then reinforces her understanding by evaluating someone else’s paper. Or for that student, the adaptive system might determine that it’s not the kind of classroom activity that matters but rather the kind of cognitive work she is doing. Maybe she needs rigorously analytical work (think logic games) before introspective creative work. Maybe her ideal “learning day” consists of math drills, history reading, then physics exercises.
The data generated by an adaptive system can also help determine the ideal amount of time each student should spend doing each type of activity. The system might discover, for example, that one student functions best if he learns in 20 minute spurts for 3 hours at a time with approximately 5 very short breaks thrown in, while another student works best in 1 hour segments with two 10-minute breaks built in. A truly adaptive system might even adjust as a student changes his habits over time.
3. Adaptive learning can enhance collaboration and community.
Isolation can exacerbate the challenges students experience in school. An adaptive system can improve student satisfaction and engagement by weaving a social component into remediation. For example, Knewton Math Readiness provides a dashboard that allows teachers to group students who are working on the same material together. Using the reporting features, teachers can also arrange peer review opportunities and form groups of students whose abilities complement each other. The possibilities are endless.
Study groups are an effective remediation tool because they address many student needs at once. Just as the best learning programs weave text, video, and diagrams together to appeal to students with different learning styles, successful group work often incorporates a variety of activities (paraphrasing, debating, drilling, and outlining being just a few examples) so that all students’ needs are met.
For more information on continuous adaptivity, check out this piece on modularity and embracing different learning styles.