New Insights About ‘Adaptive Learning’: What It Is And How It Works

Through the Open Ideas at Pearson series, Pearson has been collaborating with some of the best minds in education to showcase forward-looking, independent insights on the big, unanswered questions in education. The latest report, “Decoding Adaptive,” published in collaboration with the team at EdSurge, is the culmination of six months of research, interviews, and analysis on the current state of digital adaptive learning tools. This story is a summary of that report.

A Helpful Starting Point: What Is An Adaptive Learning Tool?

Not all learning technology is adaptive.

The “Decoding Adaptive” report offers a simple definition of ‘adaptive learning’ technology because the phrase means different things to different practitioners:

“We define adaptive learning tools as education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support. … Adaptive learning tools collect specific information about individual students’ behaviors by tracking how they answer questions. The tool then responds to each student by changing the learning experience to better suit that person’s needs, based on their unique and specific behaviors and answers.”

reaching kids

“Teachers are increasingly attempting to reach all of their students, each of whom have distinct learning needs, with the right learning experience at the right time,” writes education innovator Michael B. Horn in the report’s foreword. “Having effective software turbocharges those efforts and can provide a realistic pathway to accomplish that goal.”

“The tools, however, are not a panacea,” he writes. “It’s unlikely that a single tool will ever be able to take over a student’s education … helping students own their learning, make decisions, become lifelong learners, and develop their metacognitive skills.”

Catching Up and ‘Unshackled’

The report profiles two schools using adaptive learning technology.

The first is Aspire ERES Academy in Oakland, California.

Students there spend up to a quarter of their day (50 to 80 minutes in total) using online tools. In one second-grade classroom, a teacher spends 15 to 30 minutes with each of his students every Friday to talk through their progress and problems uncovered through their adaptive learning work.

At the second school, Joseph Weller Elementary School in Milpitas, California, 40-percent of the students are English language learners. A large portion of them perform at proficient or better levels, according to California standards.

“For us, the decision to use adaptive technology was about helping underachievers catch up,” district superintendent Cary Matsuoka told the report’s researchers. “And it was about helping kids take responsibility for their own learning.”


“Just as gratifying,” Matsuoka says, “is watching gifted students race ahead, unshackled for the first time in their school careers.”

 How These Tools Do the Adapting

Decoding Adaptive” also documents EdSurge’s research to understand how and when adaptive learning tools actually change a student’s learning experience.

They found that the way a tool adapts can be categorized in three ways:

Adaptive CONTENT

“When a student makes an error, tools with adaptive content respond with feedback and hints based on the student’s specific misunderstanding. … They also take individual skills and break them down into smaller pieces, depending on how a student responds, without changing the overall sequence of skills.”


“These tools change the questions a student sees, based on his or her response to the previous question. The difficulty of questions will increase as a student answers them accurately. If the student struggles, the questions will get easier.”


“Tools with ‘adaptive sequence’ have a lot going on behind the scenes. These tools are continuously collecting and analyzing student data to automatically change what a student sees next; from the order of skills a student works on, to the type of content a student receives.”

An example of an adaptive sequence, as illustrated in "Decoding Adaptive."
An example of an adaptive sequence, as illustrated in “Decoding Adaptive.”

“If a learner was not in class during a period when a particular skill was introduced and years later was learning a new skill that built on that prior knowledge, that learner would struggle. Adaptive sequencing tools could help that student go back and find this gap and learn this content first, rather than in the same sequence as everyone else.”

Product Reviews

According to the report, the edtech market is flooded by tools that offer, or claim to offer, adaptive learning features.

Its researchers road-tested 24 different adaptive learning tools. The findings are helpful for educators assessing technologies for use in their classrooms:

“It’s one thing to recommend a skill, but it’s another to recommend a skill and the best piece of content for learning that skill. Of the tools we researched that have adaptive sequencing, only 30% take the extra step of recommending content that’s proven to be the best for students.”

“Answering a question correctly is important, but so is the process it took to get there. Some adaptive tools can collect data on how students learn and use it to create a more complex picture of students’ abilities.”

“One of the benefits of large amounts of data on how students learn is being able to compare how educators think students learn, to how they actually learn. One way that adaptive tools are helping to do this is by capturing the order of skills that students are actually using to learn content.”

What This Means for the Classroom

The students entering America’s classrooms come from more diverse backgrounds and bring a wider set of needs and abilities than ever before in history. By contrast, funding for schools grows modestly at best. In most segments of life, when we’ve tried to do more with the same (or fewer) resources, we’ve invented tools to help.”

“Adaptive learning is alluring … because it’s aligned to an educator’s ultimate goal of helping every student achieve his or her maximum potential through differentiation,” the report continues.

“There are also many challenges …. Most adaptive tools are used in learning environments that are led by teachers, which means they need to be able to work in harmony with teachers as the leader.”

Adds Michael B. Horn in his foreword:

“This technology can accelerate our knowledge of what learning experiences work best … so that educators can adapt to a reality in which they can help all children find their passions and reach their fullest potential.”