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How Instructors Use Adaptive Assignments in the Classroom

Posted in Adaptive Learning on March 12, 2015 by

Every instructor has her own preferences for creating assignments. Some like to assign short, nightly homework; others prefer longer, weekly assignments. Some use homework to reinforce previous topics, while others use it to introduce new concepts. Knewton-powered learning products offer instructors even more opportunities to customize homework assignments by tailoring them to each student’s individual needs.

We’re always eager to learn more about how instructors are using Knewton-powered products in their classrooms. In this study, we looked at how college professors used a suite of science products that allow them to create their own homework assignments. Some assignments are identical for all students (“standard assignments”). Other assignments are personalized to address each student’s demonstrated needs (“adaptive assignments”).

In many cases, professors chose to make most or all of their assignments adaptive. In other cases, they used a combination of adaptive and standard assignments to create a unique workflow that suited their classes.

Adaptive Assignments as Review

One pattern we observed was professors assigning frequent standard assignments, combined with less-frequent adaptive assignments.

Why might a professor do this?

When we looked at the content of each assignment, we found that the standard assignments often covered a small set of concepts, assessing the material learned in class that week. The adaptive assignments, on the other hand, reviewed the concepts covered in the previous month — possibly preparing students for an upcoming test.

By taking this approach, professors provided each student with a personalized exam review focusing on the concepts with which she was struggling.

Let’s examine what this strategy looks like in a real college chemistry class from spring 2014. The charts below show student activity on each day of the course. The top plot shows student work on adaptive assignments. The bottom plot shows those same students working on standard assignments. Each peak corresponds to a different assignment. (Note the lull in assignments towards the end of March. That presumably corresponds to students not doing homework over spring break!)



Below is an illustration of how one of these adaptive review assignments drew from material covered in three standard assignments. Each standard assignment is shown in a different color. The concepts from the standard assignments that appear on this particular adaptive review assignment are outlined in orange. Because the review assignment is adaptive, students are given a personalized set of questions that focus only on the areas on which they are struggling.

Below is a visualization showing all the concepts covered in the standard assignment.


Let’s look at one student’s adaptive review assignment. This student interacted with all of the concepts below during the standard assignments, but only the bolded concepts during the adaptive review.  Note how this student’s review focused on material from Assignment 2 and Assignment 3.


In contrast, here is a second student’s adaptive review from the same class.  This student received review material from all three assignments, with extra focus on Assignment 1 and Assignment 3.


By using an adaptive review assignment, this professor created differentiated learning experiences, allowing each student to focus on the review material that best suited his needs.

Standard Assignments as Review

We also saw professors use standard assignments to help review concepts that were previously addressed in adaptive assignments. For example, in a college biology course, a professor chose to use short adaptive assignments for most of the homework. She also assigned three long standard assignments, which took about a month to complete and each had over 100 questions. Perhaps the professor assigned these as a take-home exam for students to complete as they learned each concept.


These are just two examples of how professors are using Knewton-powered products to help meet the needs of different students and classes. We’re excited to continue to see how instructors working with different populations of students (across grades, subject areas, and levels of knowledge) use Knewton to support instruction and improve learning outcomes.