A new survey of faculty utilizing adaptive learning teaching practices has shown that, while many are implementing evidence-based practices in the context of digital learning, there remains significant opportunity for faculty to do more to promote equity.
Teaching Practices of Faculty Adopting Adaptive Courseware summarizes the results of a survey taken in fall 2020 of two-year and four-year “Lighthouse” institutions in which faculty piloted digital courseware tools in 2019 with the support of Every Learner Everywhere and its network partners. A previous report documented how faculty in over 40 gateway courses across 10 colleges and universities implemented adaptive technology with the goal of improving learning outcomes for Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation college students.
This follow-up survey on teaching practices explores how instructors make use of the full scope of adaptive learning courseware and use it to help close equity gaps in the classroom. The report showcases how common adaptive learning is becoming but also highlights where work still needs to be done to use digital learning tools effectively. These areas include active learning techniques, data analytics, and centering equity.
EBT practices and active learning
Teaching Practices of Faculty Adopting Adaptive Courseware organizes its findings around six categories of evidence-based teaching (EBT) practices: active learning, transparency, formative practice, metacognition, data analytics, and inclusive learning environment.
The good news is many specific evidence-based teaching practices were very common among the survey respondents: practice with immediate feedback (96 percent), clear statement of learning objectives (96 percent), information on how to improve (96 percent), and use of low-stakes formative assessments (94 percent). These are all practices directly supported by adaptive courseware.
However, active learning practices that encourage deep engagement with course content and learning by doing didn’t show up as prominently in the survey. Only 52 percent of the faculty said they allowed students to work on new material as homework prior to discussing it or prior to working on problems in class, and only 25 percent reported offering peer learning or think-pair-share activities.
According to Patricia O’Sullivan, Content Manager at Every Learner Everywhere, active learning suffered during the pandemic as instructors and students had to learn how to engage remotely through video conferencing tools. However, when done properly, active learning can help digital learning become more personal for students.
“We like to call it ‘high-tech, high-touch,” O’Sullivan explains. “Ideally, if you’re high-tech, you’re incorporating digital learning that allows your class to have more high-touch engagement between students and faculty and between students. Faculty can potentially offload work to the technology that might have taken up time in the classroom and free up time for more active learning.”
The network partners, says O’Sullivan, recognize how challenging it is to achieve that potential, and many of the workshops, webinars, publications, and other resources they have developed since 2019 have focused on supporting faculty using digital resources for active learning.
Improving data usage from adaptive courseware
Another EBT practice scoring low in the survey of Lighthouse institutions was data analytics. This involves using the real-time data that adaptive courseware provides throughout the semester to inform teaching practices, revise lessons, and personalize support for individual students.
Although survey responses indicated that instructors consulted data dashboards, they didn’t often use that data to improve student outcomes. For example, only 25 percent of instructors used student performance data to modify class content at least weekly. And only 46 percent sent personal messages to students about their progress.
O’Sullivan says instructors should think of courseware dashboards as their early warning systems for possible student issues. “In a traditional classroom with three to four exams, the first time we know somebody is struggling with the content is after the first exam, which can be several weeks into the semester,” she explains.
Digital courseware, however, typically incorporates regular practice activities and assessments that generate early and frequent data about the class and individual students. These can show where personalized interventions will have an impact.
“The dashboard will indicate which students are behind and which particular lesson is holding up progress, allowing faculty to intervene strategically,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s a way to personally connect much earlier with the students who aren’t where you think they should be in terms of learning.”
Adaptive learning also makes it easy to do survey-style check-ins with students, O’Sullivan says: “Two week check-ins and others throughout the term can show if students understand how to use digital tools, understand the course expectations, or are struggling with other aspects of the course.”
Adaptive learning teaching practices for equity
The results of Teaching Practices of Faculty Adopting Adaptive Courseware present a powerful insight for the Every Learner network to inform its activities going forward. While 61 percent of Lighthouse faculty surveyed said they included culturally relevant course content, only 38 percent said they incorporated adaptive learning with other inclusive teaching practices such as activities designed to allay student anxiety, stereotype threat, or imposter syndrome.
As the report notes, inclusive teaching around digital tools wasn’t a major focus of the technical assistance provided by the Every Learner Everywhere network in 2019, so “these data underscore the importance of the network’s decision to place greater emphasis on equity-oriented teaching practices going forward.”
“While strategies that can allay anxiety, stereotype threat, or imposter syndrome are not new, the packaging of them as inclusive teaching is relatively new,” says O’Sullivan.
“It will take time for inclusive teaching practices to become widely adopted in higher education,” she says. “Digital learning has been broadly adopted as a solution for academic continuity in times of disruption. Now we need to work to ensure that digital learning tools are designed and implemented equitably.”