Many adaptive learning pilot projects involve faculty, deans, instructional designers, and instructional technology staff to implement new digital courseware and to effectively use the data to improve student outcomes.
But when Nathan Smith, OER Coordinator and Instructor of Philosophy at Houston Community College (HCC), was appointed project leader of HCC’s adaptive learning pilot, he was thinking of a colleague in a different part of the college — Amanda Guerrero, Director of Instructional Support, Academic Instruction.
Guerrero oversees an academic tutoring program with 14 on-campus locations across the city of Houston that provides 90,000 hours of student tutoring per year. Smith felt the tutoring experience could be a powerful factor in HCC’s new adaptive learning pilot.
After all, the adaptive learning courseware would be generating data about what concepts or skills students were struggling with. Typically, faculty use that data to personalize their instruction. But what would happen if the tutors and students used that information as a starting point for their session?
Smith and Guerrero believed if they could train tutors to refer to the adaptive learning data and to ask the right questions, it would provide structure and focused help for students. Smith says, “By using the adaptive courseware reports to inform tutoring, we believed we could have success.”
After two terms of close collaboration between faculty and the HCC Tutoring Center, students are getting the targeted support they need, and the college is seeing a positive impact on pass rates.
Involved from the start
With a grant and support provided by Achieving the Dream (ATD), a partner in the Every Learner Everywhere network, HCC launched its adaptive learning pilot project with a particular goal of increasing pass rates in “high-enrollment, high-failure” courses. These gateway courses often have high DFW rates and are a critical leverage point for closing equity gaps for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students.
Guerrero was involved with the project from the start, along with instructional designers, deans, and several faculty. Eventually, she engaged three learning center managers and two full-time tutors in the effort. Her role was to direct and lead how the center would provide training and support to its tutors, who would then support the students involved in the adaptive pilot.
The project kicked off with a site visit from ATD in May 2019. Smith says they “did some storyboarding and imaginative brainstorming around the type of experience we wanted students to have.”
They set goals they wanted to achieve with the adaptive learning pilot, including higher pass rates and a greater use of the tutoring center as a resource for students. They attended a seminar on implementing adaptive learning and brought in a speaker from a peer institution with experience in adaptive courseware.
Looking at the set of courses with high enrollment and high failure rates, the planning group chose two math courses and one economics course for their pilot — College Algebra, Finite Math for Business, and Macroeconomics — and they spent the summer planning to launch in Fall 2019. Over 250 students total were enrolled in the four sections of Algebra, one section of Finite Math, and six sections of Macroeconomics in the first semester.
Resource on this topic — Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide
With access to the adaptive learning courseware dashboard, students themselves can look at their own data to see where they need help. Guerrero says that’s important because college algebra and economics are not the kind of courses where students can afford to fall behind. Students need to come to the tutoring center early and often so they have the building blocks for next week’s lesson. Adaptive learning courseware provided the opportunity for frequent and personalized interventions.
When students go to the HCC Tutoring Center, they use their student ID and select the subject they’re seeking help with. A software system connects them with a tutor based on which courses they are enrolled in. At the end of the session, both student and tutor have a record outlining what brought the student in, what they want to accomplish, and what the objective is for the next session.
Now, with fine-tuned knowledge of where help was needed, it made the student-tutor experience that much more focused. Guerrero says, “We were able to spend more time on the content of the tutoring session rather than trying to figure out where the skill gaps are for the students.”
Resource on this topic — Improving Critical Courses Using Digital Learning & Evidence-based Pedagogy
Results from the adaptive learning pilot project
The HCC Tutoring Center is able to track how many students they’ve helped and the number of hours logged tutoring. Using the data, the center started providing reports to the adaptive pilot toward the end of the fall term. In the spring, the team started looking at course outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability to report on course outcomes, but the team could see students were going to the HCC Tutoring Center and getting the help they needed to succeed.
And from Fall 2018 to Fall 2019, controlling for the same instructor teaching the same course with and without adaptive learning courseware, Smith says they saw positive trends and a positive impact on pass rates.
Guerrero says the collaboration between faculty and the tutoring center led to better student interventions. But more importantly, it energized the team to want to expand its efforts: “The pilot was an opportunity to begin working more on interdepartmental collaboration.”
The HCC Tutoring Center, according to Guerrero, had never been invited to participate except for an occasional conference. It put the idea of integration into the forefront of their thinking. She says it has stimulated more thought into how they are delivering academic support services and how they can do it better.
With that in mind, Guerrero’s goal for the upcoming year is for even more integration into the classroom. This is essential because HCC, as a community college, is a point of access for a large, diverse population with diverse needs. Digital learning technologies are a means for the college to get closer to its mission, Guerrero says, “And we do that by building a better community internally.”
Download Optimizing High-Quality Digital Learning Experiences: A Playbook for Faculty
Originally published September 2020. Updated September 2021 with additional information and references.