What is adaptive learning?

Adaptive learning is a digital learning concept that is gaining momentum in academic discussions about didactics. Simply put, it is a learning system that adapts tasks, difficulty levels and amounts of information to the individual student’s capabilities. With adaptive learning, the students improve by challenging themselves and focusing on the areas that need the most attention.

Adaptive learning is a multifaceted concept, and as a result, there can be uncertainty and confusion about its practical use in the classroom [1]. With new technological possibilities come new ways of thinking, and adaptive learning is no exception. In this article, we will take a look at adaptive learning as a concept. We will explore its practical application in education and finally, we will look at the relationship between students, teachers and software.

Happy reading.

The concept behind adaptive learning

Patsy Moskal (Associate Director, University of Central Florida), Donald Carter (Director, Northern Arizona University) and Dale Johnson (Adaptive Programme Manager, Arizona State University) have written an article that addresses seven elements worth knowing about adaptive learning. They define the term as follows:

“Adaptive learning is one technique for providing personalised learning, which aims to provide efficient, effective, and customized learning paths to engage each student. Adaptive learning systems use a data-driven-and, in some cases, nonlinear-approach to instruction and remediation. They dynamically adjust to student interactions and performance levels, delivering the types of content in an appropriate sequence that individual learners need at specific points in time to make progress.[1]”

In essence, adaptive learning is a method of personalising and customising the learning process for the individual learner. In this case, it’s a digital system that uses algorithms and non-linear, data-driven approaches to create a learning environment based on the individual learner’s abilities. This person-centred approach ensures an optimal environment where each student learns at an appropriate pace and level of difficulty. Adaptive learning is an alternative, IT-based learning method with a greater focus on the individual compared to traditional classroom teaching and lectures, which are based on shared learning for the collective.

Adaptive learning in education

Adaptive learning is a tool to complement both instruction and differentiation of instruction by creating learning environments that accounts for the individual student’s academic abilities. For example, in a maths classroom, an adaptive learning system will present the learner with a set of mathematical calculations to work out. Through the learner’s interaction with the software, the programme can adjust the difficulty level to provide an appropriate challenge. The same goes for reading training software that measure the learner’s reading skills and understanding of the text content. The program follows the individual student’s academic development and works to ensure that the reading material corresponds to the student’s level.

In the 1920s and 30s, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky formulated the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development in his influential work Thinking and Language. The term defines a mental space where children, in co-operation with an adult, can learn to handle tasks that they are not yet able to do independently. Vygotsky listed three areas, each of which indicates a child’s developmental potential. If the child can already perform the action, there will not be a challenge and therefore the child will not develop further. Conversely, if the challenge is too great for them to handle, a child will not experience development. This will only create frustration and insecurity in the child. In between these areas is the zone of proximal development, where the child is encouraged out of their comfort zone with an adapted challenge and help from an adult. With adaptive learning, the learner is encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, which can be challenging, but with feedback and support from the teacher, the challenge is not overwhelming.

In this way, learning can be customised to each individual learner, with the best-performing learners continually challenging themselves with increasingly difficult tasks. Students who struggle with the tasks will be able to get the feedback and help they need from the teacher. This makes the learning experience beneficial for both students and teachers, as each student can get the right support and the teacher can ensure that all students are developing optimally.

A favourable relationship

There are a number of debates online about the relationship between teacher, student and software [3], [4]. Some fear that the teacher will become redundant. That the teacher’s role will be replaced by an inhuman phenomenon: The machine. There is also a debate about whether software can teach students skills such as creativity and problem solving, as well as other human qualities that they develop further in primary school.

There are legitimate reasons behind these concerns as we are currently seeing how artificial intelligence and increasing automation are “disrupting” the job market. A report from Danish think tanks Kraka and Cevea estimates – debatably – that approximately 800,000 jobs will disappear over the next 10-20 years. The same report also states though that new job opportunities will arise in the wake of this [5] in the same way that many have moved from the industrial to the service sector. The point is that just as machine needs service, and computer programs needs updates, so adaptive learning needs teachers.

Adaptive learning is a practical tool with clear benefits, but it can’t work without the teacher, whose role is pivotal in providing feedback, support and guidance to learners. With adaptive learning, teachers don’t have to spend resources on marking papers, checking answer sheets and calculations, because the software takes care of that. Instead, teachers are free to focus on forming, educating and supporting individual students.


[1] http://evidencenterinfo.dk/laeringsteknologi-og-viden-faerdigheder-og-kompetencer/

[2] https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2017/1/eli7140.pdf

[3] https://www.mm.dk/artikel/e-laeringsekspert-skolelaerere-bliver-aldrig-overfloedige

[4] https://www.altinget.dk/uddannelse/artikel/centerchef-derfor-er-vi-skeptiske-over-for-area9

[5] https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/faktatjek-skubber-robotterne-800000-job-ud-af-arbejdsmarkedet