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Customizing the Learning Experience with an Adaptive Learning Strategy

A Q & A with Campus Technology 2013 presenter Susan Albertson-Mettlen

At Union County College, an adaptive learning strategy is helping next fall's entering students prepare for success in their future college-credit bearing math courses. By taking a non-credit program over the summer, they can get up to speed for college-level math, potentially avoiding developmental ed courses when they enter college in the fall. It's like a bridge program, but UCC faculty and instructional designers are finding the offering--based on adaptive learning--more engaging and effective. CT asked UCC's Director of Student Assessment about the new strategy.

Mary Grush: Why are you choosing an adaptive learning strategy to help UCC's new or incoming students prepare for college-level math?

Susan Mettlen: My research interest is in how people leverage technology to construct knowledge. And more specifically, I'm interested in partnerships between technology, faculty, and the learner--and how that dynamic works; how we can make it more effective.

What started our adaptive learning project was the challenge of overcoming math failure. Currently about 65 percent of our first-time students test into one or more developmental math courses. That's just unacceptable to us. Further, fifty-three percent of developmental math students are likely to have to repeat the course--and historically, fewer than one percent of those [repeaters] graduate. This is something we want to help students avoid.

One of the things we know is that students really lack mastery and confidence in math. What was appealing to us about adaptive learning is that it gives immediate feedback. It gives students only the instruction they need to gain mastery in a certain area; it skips areas that they already know and have already mastered. By providing very small bits of information, giving assessments frequently, and offering immediate feedback, it helps give students confidence--some of them for the first time ever in math.

Grush: How is the instruction customized for individual students?

Mettlen: We start out a class with a common, targeted intervention that everyone in a small group needs. Then students work at their own pace in the adaptive learning system. The system not only gives students feedback; it also gives faculty feedback. It tells faculty immediately what students are struggling with and identifies students with more than one problem so that the instructor can pull them aside and give them a bit of assistance that will get them back on track and working.

One of the unique things about adaptive learning systems is that they really map out a very efficient learning path for each student. And the system learns with every problem the student does, exactly what they know and what they find challenging.

The system is always trying to identify the best order to present material--something that faculty really don't have time to do one-on-one. So, the computer is able to do that and provide the faculty member with feedback so that they can be more effective and more efficient in assisting students.

Grush: Is this a blended learning model, or are you working solely with students online?

Mettlen: It is blended. They have instructional time in class, which is a combination of working with the system and working in small groups with the instructor. And then they have to continue doing problems on their own on the computer. Remember, this is not being used in a [for-credit course]; it's being used in preparation for college math.

Grush: Somewhat like a bridge program?

Mettlen: Exactly.

Grush: How far are you in implementing your adaptive learning strategy at UCC? What is your success?

Mettlen: We have run two pilots already. The third and fourth pilots have just started, and we've already seen that the dropout rate has gone from 37.7 percent to down to less than 20. We are seeing that about 70 percent of the participants, whether they finish or not, if they participate for at least half the program, they test out of one or more developmental courses. Almost 100 percent of those who complete the program, pass out of one or more developmental courses--so it's working.

Grush: What have you learned so far, about leveraging an adaptive learning strategy?

Mettlen: We've learned a lot and we are tweaking the model as we go. Students enjoy a lower-stress environment, because math has been a challenge for them most of their lives. Math class in college is very stressful, but what they are finding in an adaptive learning situation, is that it's lower stress--almost like a game. They get immediate feedback; they get incremental rewards for success; and they always know where they are: there is evidence of their progress and they can see at the bottom of the screen how much they have finished and how much more they have to go. That's very reinforcing.

What we have learned about students who have finished, so far, is that there is a direct correlation--a positive correlation--between the time they've spent on task and their level of mastery. So, we are finding ways to give students more opportunities to work on this adaptive learning system as we're seeing that it really does work.

[Editor's note: Susan Mettlen will present more data on UCC's adaptive learning strategy at the Campus Technology Conference in Boston July 29-August 1.]

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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