Intelligence Shaping

How to make students want to learn.

GUEST COLUMN | By Christina Yu

CREDIT KnewtonSelf-perception and social expectations shape our intelligence more than we realize. In today’s hierarchical schools, where students are often placed on “tracks” from an early age (and adolescent self-consciousness can intensify the emotions around these very public indications of worth), this phenomenon is particularly pronounced. From the beginning, students who are told they are “smart” tend to associate positive feelings with academic challenge and place themselves in situations that require more cognitive work while students who feel untalented tend to exhibit less patience, ask fewer questions in class, and so forth. Over time, the gap widens and what originated as a slight difference in ability between students can become an almost unbridgeable gap over many years.

Adaptive learning, while not a cure-all solution to this complex problem, can help untangle the cyclical effects of self-perception and social expectation on students’ academic performance. Plus, it can help teachers guide students toward a more productive vision of learning.

“Adaptive learning” is a term that has been tossed around a good deal recently in edtech circles. When most companies use this phrase, what they’re usually discussing is “single point adaptivity” which evaluates a student’s performance at one point in time in order to determine the level of instruction or material he receives from that point on, or trivially differentiated decision trees that respond based on pre-determined rules.

When Knewton refers to adaptive learning, we mean a system that generates concept-level proficiency data, showing exactly what each student knows at any moment, and that responds in real-time to each individual’s performance and activity on the system. Such a program may adapt to multiple facets of a student’s activity (self-identified preferences, time spent, choice patterns) as well as his performance (whether his answers are right or wrong) on assessment items while driving toward learning goals.

Here are three ways in which adaptive learning can promote the idea that intelligence is malleable and help each student better control his or her academic destiny.

1) Quick feedback allows students to try, fail, and try again. By providing instantaneous (or near-instantaneous) feedback, adaptive learning can reduce the anxiety associated with school and encourage an ethos of revision and iterative development. If neither success nor failure is final, the learning process becomes geared toward exploration and long-term development rather than grades and crash studying for high-stakes tests. All this begins to shift the emphasis from talent to effort and promotes the idea that one can control his or her own ability.

2) Targeted practice keeps focus on the specific. Mastery tends to come when students are in the “flow” of work, focused on the subject at hand. By providing specific feedback that focuses on proficiency (“great job mastering fractions”), precise misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge (“remember to square the denominator”) instead of on innate ability (“you’re great at math”), adaptive learning can help students develop a healthy perception of their own ability and the value of hard work and persistence. This promotes the idea that intelligence is malleable and encourages students to develop more intrinsic motivation.

3) Over time, self awareness improves and productive patterns emerge. The more students recognize patterns in their own learning (mistakes they tend to make, study habits that have paid off, types of challenges that excite them), the more control they have to amplify or alter those patterns. Adaptive learning systems can produce valuable reports that help teachers and students identify these patterns. Additionally, with an online learning history that demonstrates their progress, students can “own” their own learning the way they might own their performance in a game (games are famous for inspiring emotional investment from players). Over time, students and teachers can recognize patterns about individuals, including strengths and weaknesses that continuously change over time, to differentiate each lesson to meet each student’s needs and, ultimately, improve student outcomes.

Christina Yu is on the marketing team at Knewton. She holds an A.B in English from Dartmouth and an M.F.A in creative writing from Notre Dame. In recent years, her fiction has appeared in various literary journals nationwide and has been nominated and cited for several Best American anthologies. Previously, she worked as a lecturer in English & Literature at Kean University and Southern Connecticut State. She is currently an M.B.A candidate at the NYU Stern School of Business. Knewton is a leading adaptive learning platform with a mission of bringing personalized learning to the world. Write to:

One comment

  1. I agree that adaptive learning is a better way of allowing students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and as a result reach their full potential

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