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5 Ways to Make Students Smarter

Posted in Teacher Tools on November 2, 2011 by

elearn_2006_28A version of this article originally appeared on Getting Smart (

Self-perception, social expectations, and previous experiences shape our academic ability more than we realize. Just think: how many times does your belief that you are gifted at something combine with positive external validation to help you overcome challenges in that area, increase your confidence, and lead you to explore that area more thoroughly and take more risks than others might?

Similar dynamics apply to school. Students who perceive themselves as “smart” tend to be more resilient and show greater perseverance in school, which ensures that they perform better academically, continue to put themselves in situations that require cognitive work, and so forth. Success breeds more success. On the other hand, many students dislike school because a combination of factors lead them early on to believe that school is “not for them.” This results in poor performance and negative feedback, which further reduces student interest in school as well as the likelihood of future academic exploration and exposure.

In order to improve student performance and self-esteem, we need to break this cycle and prove that intelligence is malleable and that students can control their academic destiny. Adaptive learning, a teaching method premised on the idea that the curriculum should adapt to each user, is the sort of limitless technology that is up to the challenge of untangling the cyclical effects of self-perception and social expectation on students’ academic performance.

“Adaptive learning” is a term that has been tossed around a good deal recently in edtech circles. When most people use this buzzword, what they’re really 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. When I refer to adaptive learning, I mean a system that is continuously adaptive–that responds instantaneously (or near-instantaneously) in real-time to each individual’s performance and activity on the system. Such a program may respond 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.

Here are 5 ways in which continuous adaptive learning can promote the idea that intelligence is malleable and help each student control his or her academic destiny.

1) Pace of feedback. By providing instantaneous (or near-instantaneous) feedback and reducing the amount of time between evaluation and completion of work, adaptive learning can reduce the anxiety associated with schoolwork 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. All this shifts the emphasis from talent to effort and promotes the idea that one can control his own ability.

2) Targeted focus. By allowing each student to focus on what he or she most needs to work on at any given point, adaptive learning helps students concentrate on maximizing their own individual potential rather than meeting externally defined one-size-fits-all standards; this encourages them to harness a deeper and more intrinsic motivation. Also, by providing specific feedback that focuses on the work done (“great job developing a clear thesis statement”) instead of on innate ability (“you’re a talented writer”), a computerized adaptive learning system can help students develop a healthy perception of their own ability and the value of hard work and effort, further promoting the idea that intelligence is malleable.

3) Flexibility of presentation. Since adaptive learning continually adapts to the performance, preferences, and activity of the user, it can deliver material in a way that appeals to different types of intelligence (linguistic, mathematical, spatial, etc). After discovering how each student learns best, an adaptive system might show one student a video, another a diagram and another an essay on the same subject. Ideally, it would be able to remediate student weaknesses through their strengths, allowing student curiosity in one area to fuel interest in every other and thus multiplying the positive effects of every learning experience. All this promotes a spirit of inclusiveness in school and prevents students from shutting down in subjects where they don’t feel gifted.

4) Productive social opportunities. Adaptive learning can help re-envision the social space of the classroom, giving students opportunities that break down the artificial dichotomy between “smart” and “stupid.” Through an adaptive learning system, teachers can use data regarding performance, learning style, and preferences to create cohorts of students who complement each other academically. In an English class, for instance, a teacher might create mini workshops of 4 people each, with each workshop composed of an “organization” master, a “style” master, a “grammar” master and a “clarity of purpose” master. Teachers can also use such a system to create opportunities for peer evaluation that allow students to grapple further with the material at hand (it’s an age-old principle that you don’t truly learn something until you teach it yourself).

5) Improving self-awareness. Self-awareness is ultimately what allows students to rebound from failure and understand that their poor performance is not a reflection of innate ability but rather a misunderstanding of something very specific. While developing greater self-awareness is a natural byproduct of learning, adaptive learning can stimulate and speed up the process by inserting “reinforcement” moments into cognitive work–moments that prompt a student to reflect on the problem-solving process, underscore the concept behind the solution, or describe the structure of some body of information. Even if a student happens to correctly guess the answer to a question, he will not be able to complete the lesson without proving his grasp of the underlying concept. Any online learning program can achieve these aims in a basic way, but an adaptive system can bring reinforcement to a new level by evaluating how well such moments are working and by providing reflective moments (and even longer exercises) tailored for each learner’s idiosyncratic style.