Adaptive Learning Is Critical To L&D Strategy

With its personalized approach to building competence and confidence, adaptive learning has the potential to drive better performance, as well as reduce errors and liability.

Adaptive learning has moved to center stage in learning and development as employers seek efficient and cost-effective ways to train workers who, more than ever, need to upgrade their skills. By bringing together the best of computer science and cognitive research, adaptive learning delivers a personalized, computer-based approach that adjusts to the needs of each learner in online and blended learning scenarios.

The reality is that employees are given little time to devote to learning while they try to carry out their daily business activities. To be effective, e-learning programs must incorporate learning science principles into their design and dynamically adjust to meet the needs of each learner. Programs that are essentially online workbooks, lectures, videos, and e-learning “page-turners” do not suffice. They offer no personalization; learners must sit through all content whether or not they’ve already mastered it, and such approaches provide no help if learners struggle. The result is often learner fatigue—and a recipe for “multitasking” while the e-learning runs in the background.

Teaching by Asking

Adaptive learning is the solution. It focuses on the knowledge and skills employees do not possess or are less confident about. Adaptive learning platforms use a “teaching-by-asking” approach that is inherently engaging. Learners spend time only on those areas in which they need development, while skipping over what they already have mastered, thus reducing the time it takes to reach proficiency. Among early adopters of adaptive learning, time savings of as much as 50 percent are common, compared to traditional e-learning or instructor-led training.

Greater efficiency means less time spent on training and more time for people to be on the job. Moreover, as companies look to a “mobile-first” strategy—enabling learning and training to be accessed anytime, anywhere (including by a remote workforce)— adaptive learning is the ideal tool.

Another major benefit of adaptive leaming is the ability to uncover and eliminate unconscious incompetence—that is, when employees think they know something, but, in fact, do not. Because this type of incompetence is unconscious, people aren’t even aware of what they don’t know or what they misunderstand, which can lead to serious consequences in the workplace, from customer dissatisfaction to safety violations. It’s a pervasive problem; our data show employees can be as much as 20 to 40 percent unconsciously incompetent in areas critical to their job performance.

Continuous Self-Assessment

With the adaptive learning approach, learners not only improve their knowledge, they also gain confidence in what they know. This is accomplished by continuous self-assessment, where learners rate how well they know a given piece of content (i.e., how confident they are in their answer) before the correct answer is revealed or a task is performed. The data from the self-assessment then are used to further adapt and individualize the experience.

As a result, learners become not only proficient but confident in their knowledge and their ability to apply it. With its personalized approach to building competence and confidence, adaptive learning has the potential to drive better performance, as well as reduce errors and liability.

Adaptive learning should be a key element of any employer’s talent development strategy. Even if an organization isn’t ready for enterprise-wide deployment just yet, at a minimum, it should evaluate adaptive learning’s capabilities. For those that do, there is significant potential to upgrade the skills and knowledge of their workforce. Those that don’t should prepare to be left behind.

Nick J. Howe is CLO of Area9 Lyceum (, a global leader in the application of learning science to improve training outcomes.