The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Adaptive Learning for “Soft” Subjects: Can Technology Encourage Creativity?

Posted in Adaptive Learning on September 5, 2011 by

DSCN5354It’s easy to see how online adaptive learning can be used to improve the teaching of quantitative subjects such as math, a subject we perceive to be defined by drilling, discipline, “right/wrong” answers, and skills which build neatly upon one another. Subjects such as English, art history, and music seem to lend themselves less naturally to adaptive technology, whether it’s the “expressive” nature of the subject or the complexity of assessment (i.e. paper-grading) that lies at the heart of our discomfort with the idea.

The requirements for successful powering of “soft” subjects are there if you take a careful look: “soft” subjects, like hard, can be broken into component skills, the mastery of which can be easily assessed. And because the very nature of many “soft” subjects (take Writing for example) is that the technical aspect (grammar, for instance) is inherently linked to the expressive, adaptive technology can ultimately be harnessed in the service of creativity and expression as well as mere efficiency.

Adaptive learning in English composition

Let’s take as an example English composition, a required course at most universities. Most teachers want their students to walk away having mastered the revision and research process. What often prevents the achievement of these goals is the burden of administrative responsibilities and the stresses of classroom management (hand-grading 20 student papers, keeping meticulous score of absences, ushering 20 students through a mandated revision cycle). Also consider that most university comp instructors are paid by the course at as low as $1700 for a 15 week class with 20 students. In such a setting, high-minded goals such as “enabling each student to craft his own style of expression” seem disconnected from reality.

Imagine, however, a blended learning solution: an online segment guides students through a lesson on sentence fragments and run-on’s, serving up targeted exercises afterwards, and leaving class time available for, say, a discussion of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Such a solution would combine the rigor of drilling with activities that take full advantage of the classroom environment—and ultimately strengthen the connection between technical mastery (the “work” of writing) and creativity of expression.

Improvements in assessment

Let’s take a closer look at a sample composition grading rubric, at the areas which dictate instructor evaluation of student papers: “style,” “clarity of purpose,” “organization,” “grammar,” etc. Adaptive learning can provide personalized instruction for students across all these areas. All that’s required is a logical breakdown of the subject at hand and a method of evaluating proficiency. An area such as “grammar” breaks down into component areas (parts of speech, sentence fragments, verbs, etc), the knowledge of which can easily be evaluated through multiple choice questions. Even “style,” a more nebulous area, breaks down if you think about it: emphasis, parallelism, periodic sentences, etc.

As a former composition professor, I identified hundreds of areas of weakness across student papers (“lack of support,” “wordiness,” “tone shift”). Frustrated that I was repeating nuggets of advice, I started to code certain comments “A,” “B,” “C,” and so on, so that each letter corresponded with academic content related to the identified weakness. Adaptive learning can facilitate this sort of grading on a much larger and more efficient scale, allowing teachers to generate quality feedback that links to personalized programs for each student.

New opportunities for enrichment and assessment

The opportunities for enrichment are endless. A student who is gifted at composing sentences, for instance, might be exposed to content on Proust or Nabokov. He or she could navigate deeply, unlocking worlds of content and instruction, and developing a sense of pride in his/her mastery (much in the way video game players are galvanized with each new level they attain). As students gain confidence, they could assume online “mentorships” where they are encouraged to “teach” others (through peer review and other exercises), increasing the instructional “surface area” of the classroom, building a sense of community, and multiplying the effects of every learning moment.

In the process of all this, online adaptive learning can also neutralize elements of school that detract from learning. Shy and disadvantaged students can gain confidence and experiment with language, without the stresses of face-to-face interaction. In this way, adaptive learning encourages a spirit of risk and facilitates honesty in intellectual exchange.

Revealing the connection between discipline and creativity

The hard work of teaching is showing students how to transform themselves, how, ultimately, to teach themselves. Getting students to the point where they experience the first self-transformation is often difficult; adaptive learning can speed up this process, generating a whole series of transformations within a semester. In composition, for example, students need to see, to feel the connection between discipline and creativity. They need to grasp how the “nitty gritty” and often uncomfortable aspect of mastering grammar and tinkering with sentences will allow them to communicate more freely and even experience thoughts they were unable to before. The targeted practice and quality feedback facilitated by adaptive learning – accompanied by spirited class discussion – will make the class experience richer and generate transformations more efficiently.

And so it is not merely that students will improve their grammar and organization skills, at the same time becoming more comfortable with creative expression – it’s that they will begin to see how deeply connected the technical and the expressive are (which, of course, is the whole point of writing).

Transforming the classroom

Adaptive learning has the potential to make “soft” subject learning not just faster but better. Ultimately, it’s not just about “efficiency,” “comprehensiveness,” “atomic granularity,” or “leveling the playing field”; it’s about powering and transforming the classroom altogether:

  1. By providing precise and individualized instruction in skills areas for which there are “right/wrong” answers
  2. By providing precise and individualized instruction in more subjective areas of “expression”
  3. By strengthening the connection between #1 and #2
  4. By fostering a more inclusive environment
  5. By reducing administrative burden
  6. By encouraging a framework of constant improvement
  7. By affording classroom activities greater flexibility, leaving more time for creative assignments, debate and discussion, group work, and research projects