Expert Advice on Personalizing Learning with Adaptive Courseware

Written by: Pamela Baker

Personalized learning offers students an individualized approach to their learning needs, pre-existing knowledge, and goals. Adaptive courseware of the kind featured on the CourseGateway product discovery tool offers the possibility to personalize instruction at scale, but how does that actually happen, and how can instructors get started?

In an earlier article, Deborah Taylor, a faculty affiliate for undergraduate biology at the University of Kansas (from where she is retired), discussed how faculty can take care in selecting courseware that is truly adaptive as opposed to simply customizable. “I really do believe that the most effective tool we have for personalized learning at scale is adaptive learning,” she says. 

For example, adaptive learning has the potential to identify learning gaps early, which enables faculty to integrate familiar techniques like scaffolding where they are needed most. Implemented effectively, adaptive learning can help faculty address individual learning needs and promote equity. 

But, Taylor cautions, “It’s not like you just open the box and get started with personalized learning. It takes a multi-step approach.” She says it was easy to get started using adaptive courseware, but it took time to learn to use it effectively. 

For example, at first, she put too many questions into her implementation of the courseware, and her students had difficulty completing them on time. Then the vendor’s marketing representative showed her a slider tool that let her better control how much time and how many questions the students are given.

Taylor is a member of the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board and is bringing her experience in selecting and implementing adaptive learning courseware to the review process for products on the CourseGateway product discovery tool. She recommends the following strategies to ensure that using adaptive courseware will lead to personalized learning.

1. Select Your Content

Some courseware can be very content rich, but Taylor warns against overwhelming students. Or, if your course is already built and you’re adding new content or activities, make sure they fit. You may need to take something else out if you add something new.

Selecting content should be guided by clear learning objectives for the class. Taylor uses the backward design approach to work from course goals, to learning objectives, to content decisions.

Related reading — 15 Resources on Backward Design to Guide Your Courseware Implementation

2. Break It into Measurable Chunks

Using her course outline, Taylor says, “I break the courseware assignments into measurable chunks. For each, I choose learning activities that will help my students learn and prepare for the questions they will take later.” 

Taylor assigns points for the activities to motivate students to complete them. She also makes the assignments short and frequent.

3. Add Pre-Class Activities and Polling

To enable more personalized learning activities later, Taylor uses pre-class activities so that students are ready for the course material before they come to class. Then, she uses polling to identify how well students understand the material. 

“I don’t want to penalize students because they didn’t know the content yet,” Taylor says. “But I want to give them a second chance because that’s how adaptive learning works.”

Related reading — A Resource List for Designing Accessible Online Learning Experiences

4. Use the Analytics Dashboard

Taylor uses the analytics generated by courseware to identify which questions students are missing and how long they are taking to complete the activities. That enables her to adjust her lesson plan or to work with individual students in focused ways.

She says her students like that adaptive courseware shows a clear running summary of how they’re progressing in the class. Students can see what grade they are earning at any time. 

5. Build In flexibility

Personalized learning requires flexibility on course policies like due dates. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she took a more traditional and inflexible approach but has come to appreciate the stress students are under with family and work responsibilities.

"I have regular, evenly spaced due dates throughout the unit that keep the students on task,” she says, “but I readily extend due dates upon request, especially when family or work issues result in the student missing the due date."

Related reading — How Instructional Designers Partnered with Faculty to Successfully Implement Adaptive Courseware

6. Use the Review Mode

Taylor says most courseware products have a review mode that gives the students new questions on the content, personalized to focus where they are struggling, until they master a topic. It allows them to do assignments again until they are successful.

What Personalized Learning Looks Like on the Ground

In learning from her own experience, Taylor offers these additional recommendations:

  • Do take advantage of the training offered by your courseware provider.
  • Don’t assign activities without awarding credit for them. When she didn’t offer points, she found that only the best students in the class completed the activities.
  • Don’t be rigid with deadlines. Students are under a lot more stress than many faculty realize.
  • Don’t be a lone ranger. Find others in your department or on campus who are using adaptive courseware to personalize learning. Share and learn from each other about what works for you, and what works for them.

The withdrawal rates in Taylor’s biology class used to be high but with personalized approaches to adaptive courseware, she is now seeing an 80 percent rate of productive credits among her students. Student feedback also suggests her efforts are paying off: “With personalized learning, if the student is willing to do the work, they achieve much more in the class and they’re more engaged.”

Taylor acknowledges that there is work in personalizing learning with adaptive courseware. But the evidence is there that it works. She says, “Just get started. You’ll love the rewards for you and your students.”

Explore gateway courseware options today!