Sometimes they encounter learning challenges because a teacher’s presentation of the materials doesn’t sync up with their learning style. Because I’m an active learner, for instance, I don’t respond well to lectures — and when I was in school, most teachers preferred to lecture. In some subject areas, I would finish before other students, and the teacher would tell me to read quietly at my desk. So after fifth grade, I didn’t like reading as much anymore because it felt more like punishment than privilege. I’m sure my teachers didn’t mean for these feelings to arise, but it happened because I had nothing else to do once I completed the assignment. My experience in math, however, was completely different — I never finished on time! I had a tremendous math phobia and shut down when I heard the words, “Get out your math book.” The teacher seemed to go through the material so quickly, and I never truly understood what she was saying. I would go home crying because I was so frustrated. I didn’t understand why I could do so well in language arts, science and social studies, but so miserably in math.

Today’s teachers, however, can more effectively modify their teaching styles to deliver content in ways that match each student’s learning style — thanks to technology. Adaptive learning tools allow teachers to put students on individual learning pathways, and the students can then work at their own pace until they’ve completed the path.

Typically when starting out, the software will present a short assessment to determine the amount of mastery a student already has on the content or skill. That assessment will then be scored and, depending on the software being used, the teacher can assign a learning pathway or the software will automatically deliver a learning pathway. Students encounter formative assessments along the way to measure their level of mastery, and the software algorithm adapts in real time to every interaction the student has with the software. In many cases, the teacher can override the software to adjust a student’s pace, but can also fully utilize the software so students progress completely at their own pace. Adaptive learning takes into account mastery along the way and ensures that students don’t progress beyond a certain point until they’ve mastered the concept or skill.

Adaptive software isn’t prescriptive — that task is reserved for the teacher! Rather, adaptive software is a framework of concepts, practices and guidelines. It goes back to the 1950s and is based on behavioral science. Remember B.F. Skinner? When artificial intelligence was introduced in the 1970s, we saw the beginnings of the true impact that adaptive learning could have in K-12 and higher education. Adaptive learning helps teachers personalize instruction so concepts can be introduced in chunks that are individualized and matched to each student’s learning level. It’s been show that students who participate in adaptive learning curricula have increased achievement, according to various studies on the subject. Adaptive software often utilizes a machine-learning algorithm that “learns” information from data and is integral to data analytics. Many fields such as finance, biology and energy already utilize machine learning — it appears education is the next frontier to benefit from this type of software development.

Kecia Ray is the executive director of the Center for Digital Education and is on the graduate faculty of the Johns Hopkins University and Bethel University.  She previously worked at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, where she served as the district’s first executive director of learning technology. She has conducted research in the area of technology integration across the United States, Canada and South Africa and is the author of three books and several papers focused on designing instruction and distance technologies.