How Adaptive Learning Technology Can Help Transform U.S. STEM Education

This article was co-written by Dr. Nishikant Sonwalkar and Ben Owens


Many of today’s classrooms look very much like they did 100 years ago: rows of desks, students passively listening to lecture-based instruction, and a one-size-fits all method of instruction.

These classrooms look nothing like the real world’s fast-moving, tech-savvy global workplaces, and until we make the insides of our schools look more like the outside, the U.S. will continue to graduate students who are ill-prepared for college and careers.

Just take a look at the numbers: According to the National Math + Science Initiative, only 36% of 2013 high school seniors graduated with the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed in college science courses.

The result is that numerous employers in the U.S., especially in STEM fields, are having difficulty finding qualified candidates who meet the minimum requirements for their high-paying jobs, and many young Americans are failing to find careers in which they can thrive intellectually and financially.

Ben Owens and his Physics Students

Ben Owens and his Physics Students

“If I am not constantly ensuring that all of my students are deeply engaged with each lesson, through creativity, relevance and technology, then I am doing my students a disservice.” ­– Ben Owens, High School Math & Physics Teacher, Murphy, NC

How to Bring Learning Innovations Into Every Classroom

Educators and administrators must be willing to find methods that are a better match to the real world. They must push themselves and their students out of their respective comfort zones, where risk-taking and learning from failure is common. Such an approach is vital in any curricular area, but of critical importance for STEM courses, where learning by doing is key.

Here are a few key ways to do just that:

1. Provide More Resources for STEM Courses

K–12 school districts need more resources to expose more students to STEM courses. These courses are known to help strengthen skills applicable to any future career or academic path, yet in many rural and urban school districts, there are not enough qualified instructors to offer AP STEM courses.

Even students who enter college seeking a STEM degree are finding they are ill-prepared for the rigorous coursework and often end up changing majors: The National Center for Education Statistics found that roughly one half of students who enter declaring a STEM major will switch to a non-STEM major before graduation.

Directing more resources in the direction of STEM will allow students to achieve the necessary competency to successfully complete degree programs in STEM areas and pursue rewarding careers in STEM fields.

2. Increase the Number of Science Courses Available to High School Students

One of the biggest issues that students face is that high schools are offering fewer and fewer advanced science courses, creating a STEM competency gap. Many high schools do not offer a single course in Physics, which is one of the fundamental courses necessary for successes in science and technology.

It is important to encourage excellence, not just basic understanding, in disciplines like computer science, engineering, and computational physics while students are still in high school. If students receive in-depth training in these subjects at the secondary level, they can better transition to college-level courses — courses that are more advanced, but in which professors do not generally have as much time or inclination to work with students one-on-one to develop the necessary competencies.

Inspiring students to embrace, and succeed in, STEM subjects requires ensuring that an array of high-quality and diverse courses are available to them. This is something we need to push for in all of our schools.

3. Embrace Adaptive Learning

We must also realize that diverse student populations have diverse learning preferences and strengths. Rather than addressing everyone at the same pace and with the same types of cognitive materials, why not harness technological advances to create a system that is highly customizable to each unique user?

One promising innovation, especially for STEM education, is that of adaptive learning.

Adaptive learning systems organize content based on individual learning preferences and can maximize learning performance through continuous intelligent feedback. Utilizing technology to customize content helps make various modes of learning available in a single classroom, meaning diverse students can learn in ways that best suit their strengths.

Adaptive Learning: A Case Study

One example of the promise of adaptive learning comes from Boston-based intellADAPT, which provides user-friendly technology that can be easily integrated into the classroom and into current curricula. This technology is unique because it:

1. Allows Students to Learn According to their Preferred Style

Adaptive learning recognizes that there are five different ways through which people tend to learn: apprentice (mentor-student interaction), incidental (case studies), inductive (examples), deductive (application), and discovery (experimentation).

For example, if you wanted to teach Newton’s laws of motion, the apprentice strategy model would provide step-by-step presentation of the three laws, while the incidental strategy would present videos related to equation of motion followed by Newton’s laws. Inductive strategy would provide solved examples of problems related to velocity and acceleration, deductive strategy would provide interactive animations to present Newton’s laws, and discovery strategy would present laws in the form of crossword puzzle game.

The assessment at the end of each learning strategy also provides real-time feedback and statistics on which learning strategy is best for these students.

Utilizing technology to customize content helps make all of these modes of learning available at once, meaning diverse students are able to learn the way that best suits their strengths, resulting in improved knowledge retention.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the learning strategy usage statistics for an individual student

2. Creates a Hybrid Learning Model

With adaptive learning, students can learn from their teacher and from computer-based programs, making for a more enriched and varied educational experience. IntellADAPT’s online learning programs, for example, can be accessed via a computer or as a smartphone app, and take students through multiple modules, integrating text and video segments with practice tools and formative quizzes. Teachers can use these modules to complement and reinforce their own lesson plans, as well as engage students who might not be as motivated by classroom lecture alone.

With the proper pedagogical framework, these sorts of tools allow students to work not just with teachers in the classroom, but also with mentors in an online learning environment. Diversifying the learning medium this way, and the number of “teachers” a student is able to access, is also aligned with modern modes of learning (online courses, etc.) that students are likely to become more and more familiar with once they graduate from high school and enter college and later the working world.

This brain-based technology has already been successfully deployed in Massachusetts and North Carolina classrooms, where teachers are using the adaptive learning modules as a resource for accommodating individual learning preferences and also as a tool to gain insights into each student. The data the program collects helps informs teachers how the students are performing in their course and how they could improve.

This means students in the rural mountains of Appalachia in Western North Carolina now have access to a responsive learning platform that can increase their depth of knowledge in physics. This tool, when used to supplement innovative and engaging teaching practices, helps level the playing field with districts across the country and provides scaffolding for college-bound students to develop necessary competency for success in STEM.

3. Gives Teachers Further Insights into Student Learning

Students can pursue personalized development of STEM skills using the adaptive resource, while still receiving the benefits of teacher supervision. Teachers are able to get up-to-date information on student’s learning preferences, progress, performance, and learning activities — in essence, they have access to a valuable tool for understanding the learning patterns of the cohort with whom they are working. They can then use this real-time data to customize their classroom lectures and activities to help students reach maximum learning outcomes.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the teacher’s interface for the reports that are generated for teachers for classroom use

Figure 2 shows the teacher’s interface for the reports that are generated for teachers for classroom use

In Short

Deploying adaptive course resources in such a manner gives us one way to address the need for more innovation and customized learning methods in the classroom and can, in principle, reach millions of interested, deserving, and underserved students in remote and rural areas of the U.S. Harnessing new technologies such as adaptive learning is essential for helping to re-skill America while decreasing the growing achievement gap of our students. In order to realize this paradigm shift, though, we need to be open to a new way of teaching and to the idea that there can be multiple viable pathways to learning success, even within one classroom.

Dr. Nishikant Sonwalkar (Sc.D. MIT) is a leading expert in the application of computers in education, a pioneer in the development of Adaptive Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and Founder of intellADAPT,

Ben Owens is a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow and former engineer, who spent 20 years working for a Fortune 15 Company, but decided to enter teaching to help address the lack of STEM-educated high school graduates. He currently teaches Math and Physics at Tri-County Early College in Murphy, North Carolina, and uses adaptive learning in his classroom.