Using Adaptive Learning Technology to Improve Student Learning in STEM Courses

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The use of adaptive learning technologies improved student success in STEM courses at our institution and now supports blended and online courses. In this session, participants will identify their own needs, consider best practices, and develop a plan to gain support for integrating adaptive learning technologies on their own campus.

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My career started thirty years ago teaching high school English in a variety of diverse settings, both in the United States and abroad. Creating conditions for under-prepared students to achieve success became my passion, so I shifted toward teaching developmental courses and administrating academic support programs in higher education. From there, a natural next step was to support college faculty with assessment, curriculum design, and implementing evidence-based pedagogies. As a Teagle Assessment Scholar, I work with faculty and staff at other institutions to promote the development of a culture that values—and acts upon—assessment practices as the surest way to educational reform. As Director of the newly-created Center for Academic Innovation at York College of Pennsylvania, I collaborate with my colleagues to foster a community that stimulates dialogue and reflection about excellence in teaching, nurtures a commitment to student success, supports scholarship, and promotes policies to support and reward innovative, high quality teaching and learning experiences.
I started my career as a professor of chemistry at York College of Pennsylvania (YCP) with the desire to help students learn chemistry. I consider myself to be an early adopter when it comes to trying new things in the classroom; after teaching for one year I completely flipped my sophomore level organic chemistry course. Each semester brings a new layer of technology or app or other tool to help my students learn or communicate with me. As a constructivist, it's important that my students learn by experiencing the material themselves and that I act as their coach to help them succeed. At the institutional level, I served on the committee that proposed a framework for blended and online learning at YCP. More recently, I became interested in helping science majors succeed at YCP, specifically in their 100-level courses. I developed and now direct and teach in our STEM Scholars program, a residential learning community that supports STEM student retention using high impact practices including cohort building, early exposure to research, and multi-faceted mentoring.
Dr. Laura Niesen de Abruna is PI on the 2017-2019 "Provosts, Pedagogy, and Digital Learning" $1.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is Past President and current Board Member of the Association of Chief Academic Officers (ACAO) and past member of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) Chief Academic Officers' Task Force. She is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania. Dr. Niesen de Abruna graduated from Smith College and spent a year at the University of Paris. She received both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received the M.S.Ed. in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania. She has published extensively on such topics as Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, digital learning, Caribbean Literature, the role of the public intellectual, and the role of the dean and provost in higher education. Her background in higher education is extensive, having served as the Dean of the School of Arts, Communication and Education at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania and as Vice President of Academic of Academic Affairs at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. She has received numerous awards, including two Fulbright Fellowships in Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as ACLS, NEH and and ACE Fellowships. She served as an ACE Fellow as Special Assistant to the President of SUNY-Oswego. As a faculty member, she was Full Professor of English at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.

Extended Abstract

Retention and graduation rates for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are of national concern, and the focus on improving student learning in STEM disciplines has grown. However, reform and change have not been implemented on a nation-wide scale. This session will describe how the use of institutional-level assessment data and the subsequent application of adaptive learning technologies resulted in improved success for students in STEM courses at our institution.

Adaptive learning technology is instructional content that is designed and sequenced to offer an entire course packet in lieu of a physical textbook, or sometimes in addition to a textbook.  Students access this course software and receive personalized assessment and digital coaching as the program directs them to additional work which helps them understand content. Students cannot proceed from one section to another without mastering content--they cannot move on until the program determines they are ready for new content.

In addressing the 2012 call from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to produce one million STEM graduates over the course of ten years, colleges and universities should consider the larger picture. As more and more scientists begin to retire, their positions will need to be occupied with competent and confident professionals. In order to fill the gap of scientists ready to enter their field, it is important that institutions of higher education increase support for students in STEM majors.

At our institution a considerable number of students enroll in 100-level science and math courses to kick-off their journey as science majors. As part of our institutional assessment, it became clear that several of these first-year science and math classes experience systematically low rates of passing. The inability of our students to achieve success in these courses is a significant institutional concern, as these students are prone to change majors, delay graduation, or drop out of college entirely.

As a first-year math or science instructor, it can be tempting to blame attrition in these courses on student deficiencies. However, the seminal study by Seymour and Hewitt (1997) found that STEM students commonly switch majors due to: poor teaching in STEM; lack of interest in STEM or increased interest in other area; curriculum overload/too fast of a pace; and poor faculty advising. Part of our mission as educators and institutional leaders is to ensure a high quality education which prepares students for productive and purposeful lives. In upholding this mission, it is important that educators recognize the need to provide the necessary structure and supports for student success. Pedagogical changes and curriculum reform are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strategies for improving student success in higher education.

Implementing the use of adaptive learning technology is one approach within a broader personalized and online learning landscape that provides educators with tools that can tailor the learning experience to the individual, help at-risk students master core skills, and develop guided pathways that assess students' progress toward graduation and suggest interventions if challenges arise along the way (Alli, Rajan, and Ratliff, 2016). Research conducted by a number of universities and by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has indicated that adaptive courseware helps students to learn the course material and to retain in the class, thereby improving retention from one year to the next and eventually persist to graduation. In addition, evidence shows that implementing adaptive learning software not only increases accessibility, personalizes learning, provides increased practice and timely feedback, but also reduces costs for students and accelerates time to graduation (Ekowo, 2017). Research sponsored by the Gates Foundation indicates that despite the maturity of digital learning (especially adaptive technology) and its ability to help students succeed in developmental mathematics and other gateway courses, few faculty members are using this technology.

In this session a provost, chemistry professor, and educational developer share our journey of implementing adaptive learning technology at a mid-size institution. Drawing upon the research funded by the Gates Foundation, Learning to Adapt 2.0: The Evolution of Adaptive Learning in Higher Education (2016), a pilot study implementing adaptive learning technology in one section of general chemistry was developed in fall 2017. Several adaptive learning tools were considered as faculty sought improvements to the existing module for digital homework module. The adaptive courseware Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) was ultimately selected for use in chemistry, primarily due to the cognitive research backing the math and chemistry-focused product, as well as the individualized coaching nature of the interface. In order to determine the extent to which this product could be implemented on a larger scale, all faculty teaching the course were involved with assessing learning outcomes across sections (with and without the adaptive learning software). Although the subsequent course is not one required by all STEM majors, the adaptive learning technology pilot continued to the second semester of general chemistry.

In both studies we found the ability of students to interact in a personalized manner with ALEKS led to enhanced learning gains and increased confidence in students. Furthermore, students reported that they appreciated the opportunity to learn from mistakes, go at their own pace, and increase confidence in their problem-solving abilities. These remarkably positive results prompted an institutional shift to implementing adaptive learning technology more widely, with all general chemistry  instructors using the technology in Fall 2018. Students entering the course participated in a preparatory online module over the summer, which provided the student and instructor a snapshot of student preparedness. The level of pre-existing knowledge a student brings to the course is, typically, directly tied to their success in the course. Students who start the module in the summer have time to work within the ALEKS system to improve their readiness for the course in the fall. Those students who cannot complete the module (i.e. add the course late) have the opportunity to complete a similar set of tasks in the first week of the semester.

Adaptive courseware is currently impacting nearly half of the college’s first-year student population. Furthermore, the exceptionally positive outcomes due to the use of adaptive learning technology in chemistry has prompted the math and science faculty to offer courses as blended or online in the future. Our institution is not immune to faculty resistance when implementing new technologies or pedagogies -- knowing that faculty will now consider offering blended science courses is a crucial step toward our institutional-level goal of offering more blended and online learning opportunities for our students..

Our use of ALEKS is only one example of how adaptive learning courseware can positively impact student learning and attitudes. Participants from all backgrounds of higher education will benefit from this session by considering our story and their own needs about how adaptive learning technologies might best support their own students. Attendees will respond to prompts to identify institutional, departmental, and course needs, discuss a variety of potential adaptive learning technologies that might be a good fit, consider best practices for using adaptive learning technologies, and develop a plan to gain support on their own campus.

Works Cited:
Alli, N., Rajan, R., and Ratliff, G. (2016) "How Personalized Learning Unlocks Student Success." Educause
Bryant, G. (2015) "Learning to Adapt 2.0: The Evolution of Adaptive Learning in Higher Education."
Ekowo, M. "With Adaptive Tech, Students are Saving Money and Learning More." Edsurge
Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.