Maximizing Learning Outcomes: How to Choose Courseware for Adaptive Learning

Written by: Pamela Baker

Courseware offers potential benefits such as flexibility and convenience, support for remote and hybrid learning, and cost savings. But one challenge for faculty selecting courseware is that the terms “adaptive learning” and “adaptive courseware” are often used in ways that are confusing or misleading.

Dr. Deborah Taylor, a faculty affiliate for undergraduate biology at the University of Kansas (from where she is retired), is the lead author on a chapter on personalized and adaptive learning in the open-access book Innovative Learning Environments in STEM Higher Education: Opportunities, Challenges, and Looking Forward. She says many people mistakenly conflate courseware with adaptive learning or think all courseware incorporates or supports adaptive learning. It’s important to understand the definition of adaptive learning courseware before beginning the evaluation and selection process. 

One source of confusion, says Taylor, is that while some courseware products are advertised as adaptable, that just means the content or administrative settings can be customized. For example, programs or individual faculty can select and deselect particular units or practice activities, or they can customize when automated prompts and alerts are sent out.

Faculty evaluating and selecting software should be aware that “adaptable” in that sense doesn’t mean the courseware uses adaptive learning. 

Defining Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning courseware is a type of educational technology that uses data and algorithms to personalize the learning experience for each student. When courseware is adaptive, it analyzes a student’s performance and adjusts the content delivery accordingly in real time. Adaptive learning courseware aims to optimize learning outcomes by providing students with the right content at the right time, based on their individual needs.

Because adaptive courseware necessarily examines students’ data to make adjustments, it has the potential to present that data to faculty so that they can further analyze it and use it to revise and personalize their teaching practices during a term.

Taylor recommends the 2020 paper Constructing a Design Framework and Pedagogical Approach for Adaptive Learning in Higher Education from the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, in which the coauthors outline required and preferred characteristics of adaptive learning. First, for a course to be considered adaptive, it must have these three characteristics:

  1. Objective-based learning bits/lessons

  2. Personalized content and assessments with timely feedback

  3. An individualized pathway with prerequisite learning materials, acceleration or remediation based on the student’s knowledge, learning analytics, and personalized interventions

Second, these two features are preferred:

  1. Alternative adaptive content (video, text, etc.) based on learning performance and learning characteristics

  2. Questions and content that use variables and conditions

Benefits of Adaptive Learning Courseware

Adaptive learning courseware offers several unique benefits on top of the benefits common to all courseware. One is its ability to personalize instruction. By analyzing a student's performance, the courseware can identify areas where the student needs additional support and provide targeted instruction to address those areas.

Taylor says: “Most adaptive learning is built upon mastery of course material. This means you’ll get a question or two on a topic and if you get them right, you’ll move on. But if you miss them, you come back to that or a similar question.” This can help students learn more effectively and thus improve students’ outcomes.

Another benefit of adaptive learning courseware is its ability to provide immediate and targeted feedback. Instead of waiting for an instructor to grade an assignment, the system can show students immediately the areas where they need to improve and can point to the content, practice activities, or support resources that will help.

Lastly, Taylor says: “It levels the playing field for underprepared students by giving them the tools they need to get up to speed with the rest of the class, and allows them to successfully complete the gateway course. This approach has been shown to be very effective in closing the equity gap for minoritized and low-income students by keeping them on track for completing their college degree.”

Factors to Consider When Selecting Adaptive Learning Courseware

Taylor recently joined 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 tool.

She says when selecting adaptive learning courseware, faculty should consider several features, characteristics, or options:

  • Is there a personalized learning path that uses real-time data and algorithms to continuously evaluate students’ learning and provide the necessary content and feedback? This includes scaffolding to ensure mastery learning.
  • Does it use data-driven insights? The courseware should be able to adjust content delivery based on a student's performance, providing targeted instruction to address areas of weakness and reinforcing areas of strength.
  • Does it come with a dashboard for the educator to see what individual students missed? This enables instructors to modify their teaching to focus on where the class is struggling, extending the principles of adaptive learning outside of the courseware itself.
  • Determine if the content is customizable. Are the assignments flexible? Can faculty choose how long lessons are or how many questions are included in a practice activity?
  • Does the courseware publisher offer training and support for faculty?
  • Does the publisher provide a “sandbox” for instructors to experiment with the product or a demo course to try out?
  • Can the publisher provide references from similar institutions that are using the courseware?

Meanwhile, other factors are important for all courseware, adaptive or not. Interactive elements such as videos, quizzes, and games should balance out static elements. The courseware should be easy to use, customizable, and compatible with the other technology used at an institution.

Other Advice for Educators

Taylor says to do these things before starting your courseware selection process:

  • Have clear learning objectives for your class. “That’s the number-one rule, but a lot of people don’t do that,” she says.
  • Prepare yourself by understanding what adaptive learning courseware is and what it can do.
  • Ask yourself:  “Why would I want to put an adaptive learning component here? How would I fill the gaps with adaptive learning courseware?”
  • Think about how your current course might need to change. When you add a new component to your course, you should give something up so as not to create too much work for the students. Think about restructuring your course to make room for new activities.
  • Commit to breaking up the course content into smaller chunks in order to use adaptive learning effectively.
  • Know what others in your institution or similar schools are doing. If you can, build a faculty group that works together on implementing adaptive learning.


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