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Adaptive learning responds to previous knowledge, demonstrated ability

By Glyn Jones

Adaptive learning, a process that automatically adjusts the level and type of course content to a student’s ability and prior knowledge, is an excellent tool for safety education that is not necessarily new, but is grossly underused. It increases learning efficiency and accelerates a learner’s performance.

Perhaps adaptive learning’s greatest potential in the world of safety is in educating the masses, including high school students about to enter the workforce, construction and oilfield safety advisors and those furthering their education in an occupational health and safety program.

Adaptive learning uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of the core course content to students’ learning needs as indicated by their responses to questions and their demonstrated ability to complete certain tasks.

The system uses pre-tests aligned with the course learning outcomes to pre-set the course content. If a student does well on the pre-test, there will be less content to cover and the learning activities will be adjusted to focus on reinforcement of content. If the student does not do well, more content will be presented and more learning activities will be added.

Ongoing module self-tests are prescribed throughout the course to re-affirm or re-assess the assumptions made based on the pre-test. If a module self-test re-affirms the student knows the content, the content to cover is appropriately reduced. If the results of the test are different than the pre-test, content is re-established to support the learner to meet the course learning outcomes. Adaptive learning creates individual learning paths on a real-time basis to guide the student through the course content and curriculum and ensure the course learning outcomes are achieved. Regardless of the how the system responds, all learners are required to demonstrate mastery of the content consistent with the established learning outcomes. The only variable is how much content and how many tasks the learner has to complete to get to the final assessment.

Courses developed using adaptive learning are not different than conventional courses; they have a course description, a set of learning outcomes (or competencies), instructional content, a range of learning activities and an assessment. The difference with the courses that employ adaptive learning is the content and activities adapt to the students’ learning preferences and learning speed.

When work is too easy for the learner and the course content is too comfortable for him, no real learning will take place and he will eventually lose interest. Conversely, when the work is too hard, the learner becomes frustrated and will likely give up.

The optimal learning area is in between the “comfort zone” and the “frustration zone.” This is the sweet spot where true learning will take place. It’s the area where a learner will be challenged and have to work hard to understand a concept or complete a task. Adaptive learning automatically ensures the student gets the appropriate next lesson — one that is not too hard and not too easy. Some call this the Goldilocks optimization.

By keeping the challenge appropriate, the learner is guided to becoming someone who thinks and strategizes such that she can apply what is being taught and integrate it with her real life experiences. This process optimizes the teaching process and, in doing so, optimizes student learning.

Using an adaptive learning system has many practical applications in the safety world. When students begin a program of university study, say a certificate in OHS, it is common for them to apply for prior learning assessment. In effect, they are applying to have a course or series of courses they have previously taken count as credit for one of the courses in the certificate program. This would be unnecessary with a fully functioning adaptive learning process. If a student already has the knowledge necessary for the course, adaptive learning would automatically adapt and shorten the course to be consistent with the student’s prior knowledge. This would be to the advantage of the university because the student will have demonstrated competency before being given credit. It is also to the student’s advantage because if the program of study has a few elements that she did not cover previously, the adaptive learning will assess these weaknesses and automatically provide the content required.

Adaptive learning also has important practical applications. Employees are often frustrated by having to repeatedly take the same education course over and over to meet some internal standard or some interpreted legislative requirement. As an example, the most common complaint is having to take some form of generic WHMIS education every three years.

In the oil and gas industry, the complaint is having to take Enform’s H2S Alive course every three years. (I am taking my 10th recertification in 2015.) With an adaptive learning process, a student who has the necessary knowledge can quickly complete the course, allowing for a review of material that may have been forgotten and avoiding review of concepts still mastered.

But there are two problems: Most teaching institutions are not yet using tools they have access to and most learners don’t know it exists so they aren’t asking for it. The next time you are planning to take a training course for the nth time or you register in a university course covering content you are sure you have taken before, ask about adaptive learning. Just imagine the boost in efficiency if each course you took adapted to present just enough content to ensure you meet the learning outcomes.

Glyn Jones

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He also provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs. You can follow him on You can follow him on Twitter at @glynjones_ehsp or he can be reached at
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