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ATD Blog

The ABCs of Adaptive Learning

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

If you’re on the cutting edge of learning technology, you probably have questions about adaptive learning. Maybe you’re interested in seeing what others are doing or have questions about how to get started in your organization. Getting up to speed will likely be important for you and your organization; ATD Research found in its Personalized and Adaptive Learning: Shaping Employee Development for Engagement and Performance report that high-performance organizations are far more effective at personalized and adaptive learning. The same study notes that half of talent development professionals currently use some adaptive learning, with its use expected to grow. In fact, in two years, “20 percent (and one in four respondents from top companies) expect most of their learning assets to utilize adaptive learning,” according to the report.

So, with these stats as a foundation, let’s try to answer some of those questions you have.

What Is Adaptive Learning?

In its report, ATD Research defines adaptive learning as “technology-enabled personalized learning that uses algorithms and artificial intelligence to modify content to learners’ responses in real time.”

But let’s back up a minute, because that definition may contain terms not everyone is familiar with. Personalized learning, again according to ATD Research, provides “instruction tailored to an individual based on their interests, experience, preferred learning methods, learning pace, job role, or other factors.” And artificial intelligence, or AI, refers to computers or other machines (think “machine learning”) that are capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence.

Sound complicated? Let’s take the next step.

How Does Adaptive Learning Work?

As James Bennett explains in his May 2018 issue of TD at Work, “ Personalizing Training With Adaptive Learning Systems,” there are different adaptive learning structures, but most begin with the learner taking an assessment. The purpose of this is to determine where the learner is in terms of areas of knowledge, and where their training should focus. Beyond simply measuring knowledge, however, there is a technology component to adaptive learning that this assessment will feed.

“You are going to need to build courses in an adaptive learning system that supplies the artificial intelligence,” explains Bennett in his interview with ATD Product Manager Jeffrey Surprenant, “but that isn’t difficult. It isn’t any harder than building something in a learning management system (LMS) or a typical web content management system.”


One model within the learning system, as Bennett describes, has three main components: target knowledge, content, and the adaptive system itself. The target knowledge will be unique to the learner, “customized based on a student’s mastery.” The content can change from learner to learner, not only in terms of mastery, but also how the learner likes to learn and even what they need to learn for their job. So, if the learner likes to watch video versus read long blog entries, there is a place for that adaptation.

Finally, the adaptive system makes use of the target knowledge and content to create a learning path, or “a series of stepping stones of knowledge or skills that can build upon another.”

What Are the Benefits of Using Adaptive Learning?

Because adaptive learning focuses on the gaps in a learner’s knowledge, it saves the organization time—and, therefore, money. For the individual, there may be less frustration because they don’t need to spend their time on content they already know. And because personalized learning takes into consideration interests and experience of the learner, the individual is likely to be more engaged with the content.

As Aaron King describes it in his ATD blog post, “Harnessing the Transformative Power of Adaptive Learning,” “fueled by brain science, adaptive learning enhances performance, increases retention, supports rapid upskilling, and holistically engages learners by providing them with a customized experience that accommodates their learning preferences.” Who wouldn’t want to tap into that?


One final benefit, as Zach Posner and Christina Yu write in their TD article “Personalizing Adaptive Learning,” is that the technology helps the learner maintain knowledge, tapping into the tenets of the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. Learners must incorporate knowledge into their long-term memory for it truly to be learning, and “adaptive platforms incorporate this theory by using data to predict when a concept will likely slip away from a learner’s short-term memory,” according to Posner and Yu. At that point, the platform will reintroduce the concept before the learner forgets it.

How Can You Use Adaptive Learning in Practice?

The ATD Research report outlined myriad uses of adaptive learning: technical training, senior leadership development, high-potential development, new hire onboarding, interpersonal skills training, frontline leader development, sales training, and on-the-job performance support among them. From this you can see adaptive learning is limited only by your own creativity and willingness to experiment.

To design content for adaptive learning systems, Bennett reminds us of core L&D principles: “Determine what is being measured, then develop learning objectives, followed by creating effective assessments.”

There are a host of adaptive learning systems; before selecting one, the L&D pro should understand what the system will be used for, how you can best meet the learners’ needs, and the technical requirements and how those requirements fit into your current system.

Given the growth in AI and the thirst of learners for their own development, it is no wonder that organizations are expecting to grow their adaptive learning portfolio. So, now that you’ve learned more about adaptive, are you ready to get started?

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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Thanks Patty, very informational.
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Very Educative piece
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Thanks for the piece, Patty.
At SkillGym, Adaptive Learning is already part of our methodology, but this article is a very smart way to educate on the topic providing useful information!
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