Adaptive Learning: Definition, History & Methodology

Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

If you've used a computer, you've experienced a type of adaptive learning. In this lesson, we will explore adaptive learning and how it uses technology to create a unique learning experience for students based on their needs.

What is Adaptive Learning?

Minji is a 6th-grade student and attends an English academy in Seoul, South Korea. She recently had to write an essay about her favorite vacation in her composition class. Minji can submit her essay assignments through an online education program. This program checks her essay for errors and provides supplementary lessons when necessary. For example, in her current essay, she had several subject/verb agreement mistakes. The program not only recognizes her mistakes, but gives her more information on the topic. It then asks her to find her errors within the current essay.

The program used in Minji's composition class is an excellent example of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is a teaching method that uses computers and technology to facilitate comprehension and retention based on the unique needs of the learner. The program Minji uses not only finds her mistakes, but offers her extra material to help her understand where she went wrong. Then, to help her with remembering this information in the future, it has her find her own mistakes and correct them.

History of Adaptive Learning

B.F. Skinner 1904-1990
BF Skinner

Adaptive learning arrived on the educational scene in the 1950s. Behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, is credited with creating the method. Skinner constructed a teaching machine that focused on effectively teaching new concepts instead of reinforcing memorization. The machine worked by allowing the student to practice new concepts by answering questions. If the question was answered correctly, feedback and positive reinforcement was given. If the answer was wrong, instead of just having the student try again, smaller steps were taken towards the right answer through a series of small hints. This allowed students to not only study at their own pace, but also receive immediate feedback so they could see how they were doing.

Since then, adaptive learning has been integrated into various different fields outside of just education. NASA uses it for simulations, various branches of the military use it to train for asymmetric warfare, and we can even see it being used on the internet through social media. Take platforms like Amazon and Netflix. When you first sign up, they have a very structured and generic group of products they recommend to you. Then, based on how you respond to these products and what you purchase, it will start making suggestions that are unique to you. This is how the internet learns about you as a consumer.

Adaptive Learning Models


Each adaptive learning system is unique when it comes to the level of detail and design. However, most of these systems, but not all, tend to be constructed from three main components.

  • Content Model
  • Learner Model
  • Instructional Model

The content model includes the subject matter which the student needs to learn. Think of the key points or learning objectives that are stated at the beginning of a lesson. Ideally, this is the knowledge the student should take with them after the lesson is complete.

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