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Individualizing Instruction Through Intelligent Adaptive Learning

Intelligent adaptive learning systems create new learning paths

Providing truly differentiated, individualized instruction has been a goal of educators for decades, but new technologies available today are empowering schools to implement this form of education in a way never before possible. Intelligent adaptive learning software is able to tailor instruction according to each student’s unique needs, understandings, and interests while remaining grounded in sound pedagogy. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on May 9, 2013, research firm Metiri Group and DreamBox Learning shared how intelligent adaptive learning works, the role the technology can play in raising student achievement, and the research base required for districts to invest wisely in these new tools.

Metiri Group

DreamBox Learning commissioned the Metiri Group to develop a paper on the theoretical underpinnings of intelligent adaptive learning. One of the things we are finding is that it’s the perfect time to use this technology, and it’s right for the Common Core State Standards. We are moving away from teaching algorithmic mathematics and into teaching the deeper theory behind it.

The primary focus of adaptive learning is immersing students in modular learning environments, meaning that the curriculum is broken up into chunks and is individualized for each student. No student sees the curriculum in quite the same way, because it adapts and adjusts to give them a personalized learning experience. Secondly, it’s capturing student data with every keystroke and deciding what the student should be doing next. Finally, it guides a student’s learning experiences for proper pacing. While we’re going to talk a lot about the “learning” in “intelligent adaptive learning,” I think the “adaptive” part is really important in the sense that it personalizes the student’s experience in a way that is comfortable and that is enabling success. There are multiple ways to teach one concept, so if one isn’t working out, the teacher can move on to another one. That’s a powerful capability.

We also have the word“intelligent” in the term, and this one is probably the most important of the three words. The cognitive model that’s behind DreamBox’s intelligent adaptive learning system involves experiential learning, active learning, and inquiry learning. Those of you who are interested in using this type of system need to make sure it has the right cognitive model, and that it will sync with your pedagogy approach. Why is now the right time for intelligent adaptive learning systems? We know so much more than we did 10-15 years ago about how people learn best, and we now have affordable and sophisticated devices.

The technology also allows us to collect so much data behind the scenes. A classroom typically has one teacher with 25-30 students—think about the power of having an intelligent adaptive tutor available for every child. One of the things we all know as educators is that there is a zone of learning we want to keep students in and we want to balance how complex the tasks are to the skills the students have. What we don’t want them to do is move out of that zone. If the task complexity is too high for the skill level of a student, he or she will move out of the zone and become frustrated and confused. If the complexity is too high and the assignment is too low, students will get bored. Intelligent adaptive learning systems ensure that students will stay within that zone of optimized learning.

There are five major underpinnings to intelligent adaptive learning systems:

  • Feedback
  • Sequencing
  • Pacing
  • Cognitive flows
  • Gaming

In the area of tutoring and feedback, research has shown that intelligent adaptive learning systems can be just as effective as a personal tutor. Students often receive very little feedback in the classroom, but now we can do something about that. Sequencing allows students to go through this modularized curriculum in the way that’s comfortable for them based on their prior knowledge, skill level, and preferences. We’re all aware that there is some sequencing required in mathematics, but sometimes there’s a way to jump ahead and parallel lessons. Part of the power of mastery learning is that you really don’t go on in the sequence until you’ve actually mastered it at 80 percent. The research is really clear that when students are in this kind of pacing environment, they actually learn more. DreamBox gives teachers the tools they need to allow students to pace themselves and not advance into materials they’re not ready for, just because it’s where the rest of the class is. When it comes to cognitive flows, one of the things we know about the working memory is that humans can only remember so much at a time. DreamBox and intelligent adaptive learning systems try to make sure teachers give students lessons they are ready for and that they do not have cognitive overload.

The last area we’re going to talk about is educating through gaming. Kids are fascinated with games and they can be used as a great learning strategy. Games include logical sequencing, levels, awards, and trial and error. You’ll see many aspects of gaming in intelligent adaptive learning systems that motivate students. In summary, we want to think of these types of programs as a supplement to the regular curriculum. This technology personalizes learning for students and allows teachers to have blended learning in ways never thought possible. It uses data in really powerful ways and provides that data to teachers to use in their instructional decision making.

Director of Curriculum Design
DreamBox Learning

There’s a sense out there that math software is basically a digitized version of a textbook. That’s not at all what we do at DreamBox.The DreamBox experience is about bringing student thought to the forefront. No matter how many times we try to explain something to students, comprehension can’t just happen by itself. We have to engineer learning so that students are able to see things for themselves. For example, division with remainders is something students often struggle with. Before we give students that lesson in DreamBox, we need to work with ideas of division. We don’t say “here’s the best way to complete division.” Instead, we ask students to start thinking about how they would solve a problem, because we want them to think more strategically.

A key concept every classroom teacher knows is the sequencing of lessons and the development of ideas when trying to deeply understand mathematics and number sense. What our technology does is introduce key concepts at a younger age and build upon them as students progress, instead of introducing it all at once. It can be difficult for teachers to reach every student if they are working at their own pace, or maybe students aren’t fully paying attention when they are working on their own. With DreamBox, you can be confident that every student is using tools that make them think about the idea. There are usually multiple options for students to choose from and it’s not at all linear, so students using DreamBox can work on multiple ideas at multiple grade levels.

There are even more options for students at the intermediate levels: more practice time for concepts they just learned, concept videos that are fun and thought provoking, and recommended lessons that help them progress. When we designed games for DreamBox, we let the math drive the game rather than create a game and overlay math on top of it. In summary, DreamBox has a pre-K through grade five mathematics program that’s web-based and accessible at school and at home. It combines rigorous elementary math and a motivating learning environment. DreamBox provides many learning paths and it tailors to the unique needs of every student in real time.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: