ATD Blog

TK Top Session: What Can You Do With an Adaptive Course?

Monday, November 9, 2020

In the hands-on learning session I facilitated at ATD TechKnowledge 2020, participants took a course in Storyline and enhanced it with adaptive elements. The most notable element was content that is either shown or skipped, depending on how the learner performs on a pretest or checkpoint questions within the course. In this Insights post, we’ll look at some strategies those elements enable.

Make a Course as Short as Possible (but No Shorter)

This is the approach we implemented in the session. In keeping with the principles of adult learning, we must respect the learner’s prior knowledge.

In our adaptive course, we did this by gauging prior knowledge (using the pretest and checkpoint questions), then only presenting the instructional content that’s needed to fill any gaps in the learner’s pre-existing knowledge.

With this approach, it’s entirely possible for the learner to skip the whole course.

TK Blair Figure 1.png

A “Repeat It Until You Complete It” Course

A similar but slightly different tactic is to set up your course to include additional instruction only when the learner gets the question wrong.


On a large scale (or with a small course; microlearning, anyone?), you could have course credit hinge on a single question (or set of questions). If the learner answers incorrectly, they’re presented with some instruction, an opportunity to practice, then another question set. This loop can repeat until the learner is able to pass the test (or until they’ve exhausted all the loops you’ve built).

If you’re going to use this method, I strongly encourage you to build at least a few different loops. Verbatim repetition followed by the same questions isn’t going to help anyone.

TK Blair Figure 2.png

A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Module

This type of module (such as a branching scenario) uses the same mechanics we used in our session but implements them in a slightly different manner. Rather than having two outcomes for a question (short or long path), we’d build out a different path for each response.


This approach makes sense for topics where there’s more judgement involved or where answers aren’t just right and wrong, but might be “good, but not optimal.” For example:

  • A sales training module where you could respond to a prospect’s objections by describing your product’s features, talking about your organization’s corporate social responsibility, or pointing out a competitor’s weak points. Each response leads to a different next step and plays a part in whether you make the sale.
  • A project management module might task you with choosing how to deal with a situation where one task is behind schedule, putting the whole project at risk of delay (do you delay the end date, ask the team to work overtime to catch up, or bring more people on board?).

TK Blair Figure 3.jpg

An Adaptive Test

You’ve probably heard of these. You may even have taken one. The way it works is that you have questions of varying difficulty levels (for example, easy, medium, and hard). You start the test with a medium question. If you answer correctly, the next question will be a harder one, if you answer incorrectly, the next question will be an easier one. You continue to answer questions, with the difficulty adjusting up and down as you go, until you finish the test.

There are a few different ways you can end the test. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which is best for your test.) You might end it after a set number of questions (in which case you may want to assign different point values to easy/medium/hard questions); you could end when someone accumulates a certain number of points (again, hard questions should be worth more points than easy ones); you might end after someone correctly answers a certain number of hard questions; or you could end when someone answers a certain number of easy questions incorrectly (thus failing the test).

TK Blair Figure 4.png

Over to You

What about you? What other ways would you use an adaptive course?

About the Author

As an e-learning specialist, Simon Blair has developed e-learning courseware and associated apps, spearheaded quality and efficiency initiatives, and is a go-to source for all things LMS and e-learning technology, supporting colleagues around the globe.

At various points, he has also been a software developer, a teaching assistant on back-country camping courses, a technical trainer, and a facilitator of virtual and in-person training across North America.

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