April 28, 2021

Adapting to Adaptive Learning Technology

by Endya L. Young, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

While humans tend to be alike in more ways than not, we are also very different. We differ in the ways we think, feel, and act. And we differ in the ways we learn. Students each have their own learning style, strengths, and weaknesses that do not always align with a “one size fits all” approach. What if there was a technology to meet the different needs of students? What if this technology had the potential to foster self-directed learning skills? Such a technology would be a great addition to health professions curricula in combination with other teaching methods. This technology exists today!  Although it is fairly new, the technology has the potential to provide some significant benefits to students in the long run.

What is adaptive learning technology (ALT)? It is computer-based software that provides a personalized learning experience based on how the student performs.1 It allows the student’s learning experience to be navigated in a way that fits the student’s needs and increases the likelihood that the student will be successful.2 How does this work? ALT modifies the student’s learning materials in real-time based on their interaction with the program.3 Based on the student’s responses, ALT identifies the student’s strengths and address weaknesses and then adjusts the instructional materials, changes the pace, modifies the assessments, or provides feedback specific to the learner’s needs. ALT provides an efficient and flexible way to remediate learners who have not yet mastered a lesson while presenting new information to those who have.4

The number of studies on the effectiveness of adaptive learning technologies in pharmacy curricula is limited, but I believe it could be of significant benefit to students.  Using adaptive learning technology would prompt students to further develop their self-directed learning and their independence when learning — skills they need after they graduate. It has the potential to reduce gaps in learning and help to identify students who may be struggling.4 Use of this technology in pharmacy schools seems promising because of the need to retain the foundational knowledge while acquiring new information from the ever-evolving, ever-changing world of healthcare.

A recent study analyzed changes in self-directed learning when adaptive learning technology was used. This study enrolled first-year pharmacy students who were completing a two-semester Pharmacists’ Patient Care Process (PPCP) course series.3 In the first semester of this course, professors used active learning during traditional lectures, for example requiring students to complete pre-readings and reflections on course content followed by in-class quizzes.3 Adaptive learning technology was then used during the second semester of the course. Students were required to complete midterm and final examinations in both semesters. Surveys were completed by the students to assess the following: assignment management, stress management, procrastination management, seminar (lecture) learning proficiency, comprehension competence, examination management, and time management.3 To measure the students’ experiences and perceptions of ALT, focus groups were also used to gather additional feedback. The investigators report that students appreciated the additional practice and assessments that ALT provided. The study also concluded that using ALT freed up time during class for the instructors and students to engage in more active learning activities.

The themes identified from the student focus groups in this study convinced me that adaptive learning technology is something that should be incorporated into the pharmacy curriculum. The first theme was student learning preferences. Students overall found the assessments in ALT to be helpful, but also stated that the use of this technology made it more difficult to study for examinations.3 The students in this group stated that they would have liked to have some sort of guide such as PowerPoint slides to aid them in identifying the most pertinent information. The second theme mentioned was teaching methods. Students liked the mix of the teaching methods used, such as pre-class activities, mini-lectures to highlight key points in the learning material, and in-class activities to reinforce their learning.3 It is important to note that some students did not engage with ALT as they should have, often only answering the assessment questions and bypassing course material.  This is important because another study that used ALT in a physics course at a South African University found that students who spent more time engaging with the program performed better on examinations.5 The third theme was valued. Students seemed to benefit more from hearing their professor’s insight on the material being taught and helped them to apply concepts as they progressed. The fourth theme was technology and the challenges the students encountered with its use.

Although the findings in this particular study showed that the use of ALT was not favored by most students, I think that some of the student’s concerns are due to a lack of familiarity. Their desire to be given notes and the fact that many students struggled with procrastination and time management makes me think they oppose ALT simply because it is not something they have used before and have not yet developed the skills to be self-directed learners. Students may have had difficulties because they the lack skills needed to discern important information on their own.3 They preferred to have all of the information provided to them and to have the teacher point out what is important during class. Some students also did not engage with the ALT as they should have, often prioritized other classes. Using a combination of in-class active learning activities with ALT in between class sessions, in my opinion, gives the students the opportunity to learn from and engage with the professor but also develop life-long learning skills.  This will require some major adjustments for student students (and instructors!). Such a major change should be introduced gradually. Overall, I believe ALT has great potential – helping students who have not yet mastered the material a personalized experience while simultaneously promoting the development of self-directed learning skills. 


  1. Forsyth B, Kimble C, Birch J, Deel G, Brauer T. Maximizing the Adaptive Learning Technology Experience. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice [Internet]. 2016;16(4):80-88.
  2. Liu M, Kang J, Zou W, Lee H, Pan Z, Corliss S. Using Data to Understand How to Better Design Adaptive Learning. Technology, Knowledge and Learning. 2017;22(3):271–98. 
  3. Toth J, Rosenthal M, Pate K. Use of Adaptive Learning Technology to Promote Self-Directed Learning in a Pharmacists’ Patient Care Process Course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education [Internet]. 2020;85(1): Article 7971.
  4. Moskal P, Carter D, Johnson D. 7 Things You Should Know About Adaptive Learning [Internet]. EDUCASE 2017.
  5. Basitere M, Ivala E. Evaluation of an adaptive learning technology in a first-year extended curriculum programme physics course. South African Computer Journal; 2017; 29 (3):1-15.

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