How can you use online learning to meet individual needs? Motivate persistence and achievement? Inspire students? In this Q&A session with one of Smart Sparrow’s Learning Designers, Alison Murray, we asked her to tell us more about how she uses adaptivity to help learners succeed.

Q: How does adaptivity in online learning successfully meet individual student needs?

Alison:First, let’s define what we mean by “individual student needs”. What a student needs is determined by the factors that affect how they learn: prior knowledge, level of education, age, personality, etc.

Due to their unique set of circumstances, everyone has a different way (or ways) they prefer to learn — different needs. You often hear the term Learning Styles. The concept is a little outdated in learning design because they’re no longer considered absolutes when it comes to how someone “should” learn, but they’re still good when thinking about the different ways you can teach. Sometimes people like to jump right in and DO stuff; some people need to know the theory behind a concept in order to understand; sometimes the best way to present something is wholly dependent on the subject matter.

Adaptivity can ensure that an individual’s unique needs are met by providing different learning pathways and real-time feedback based on their performance and success. We can also target motivations through adaptivity — and that is another way of meeting individual student needs.

Speaking of motivations… Motivation is governed by so much outside the courseware. Is it really possible to motivate a student solely through an online course?

True, motivation is impacted at so many levels, and individuals will have different reasons for learning something. Part of a learning designer’s job is to motivate students to not just finish their lesson, but also to achieve and learn.

Put another way: a learner can be given a lesson and their motivation may be “just finish it!” But to actually aid learning, we need to motivate them beyond just getting to the end.

When designing, think about what motivates people in any areas of life:

  1. Usefulness and relevance, i.e. “What’s in it for me?”
  2. Interactiveness. If you keep someone moving, their brain stays engaged with the task at hand.
  3. Personalization. People love hearing their own name.

These motivators can be employed in online lessons. With the right adaptive learning tool, we can create different pathways based on relevance to the learner’s self-identified needs (e.g. they select which concept they’d like to explore ) or tool-identified needs (e.g. pathways based on how well the student is performing) to make sure learning is relevant; instructors can include activities and videos to keep learners moving and engaged; lessons can be personalized using a student’s information like major, previous responses inputted in the lesson, or other information.

What emotional aspects are important for student engagement and motivation?

  1. Self-efficacy. The learner needs to feel independent, and therefore the learning needs to be self-regulated.
  2. Self-awareness. Learners should be aware of their own mastery and feel empowered with the knowledge that they can improve if they continue to work on the areas where they are weakest.
  3. Tasks need to be challenging but achievable, with meaningful information provided.

When we use adaptivity, we can target these different aspects in order to engage and motivate actual learning. For example, when the platform recognizes that a student has incorrectly answered a question a few times in a row, you can provide adaptive feedback such as, “You seem to be struggling with this concept. Let’s look at another example.” Alternatively, you can ask the student if they’d like to see more examples, and then provide adaptive pathways depending on their response.

Okay, so we can use those motivators to encourage persistence. But how does adaptivity aid the second part you mentioned — achievement and learning?

How much learning have you completed where you’re just going through the motions to get to the end? You could argue that you’re dragging through it because the experience is dull, linear, and lifeless, and maybe just not relevant to you at all.

Adaptive learning can reach out to the individual because it can target very specific learner actions. When a lesson is reacting to a specific action from a learner, then it feels like they are personally being reached out to by the lesson — like targeted advertising!

Since it feels targeted, learners feel that there is more at stake for them to go through a proper learning process, i.e. engage, get questions wrong, receive feedback, READ the feedback (since they know it’s just for them), and try again based on the personalized feedback they got.

In comparison, a more linear learning experience which simply states, “Incorrect, try again,” will not motivate the learner to think about their actions or understanding. They won’t be inspired to think about how and why they are learning that particular information, meaning they’re more likely to focus on completion than understanding.

All in all, the best way to help learners is to sit down with them one-on-one and walk them through every misconception. Adaptivity can emulate that experience by providing learning experiences that adapt to students’ needs, how much they already know, and what they hope to learn.