Adaptive teaching: Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience in the Classroom

Last month I had the opportunity to present at the First-Year Experience- Students in Transition conference in New Orleans. The conference serves as a platform for higher-ed leaders and administrators from around the U.S. to share and discuss the latest research in teaching, programs, advisement, and assessments. Topics center around student engagement, retention, persistence, and graduation. In particular, first generation, non-traditional, and first-year students who often find the transition into college difficult during the first two semesters. It never fails that eventually someone raises the concern that today’s students seem lazy, require a great deal of hand-holding (coddling), possess a short attention-span, and look to be entertained in the classroom. I often wonder do we really understand the term student engagement? Also, who doesn’t like to be entertained while learning. We must get beyond the mindset that learning should be a laborious effort that must be endured as a rite of passage.

As kids we were taught that learning could be fun, engaging, and connect to our reality. I know we all can remember Sesame Street, School House Rocks, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, and Electric Company. Okay, maybe I’m dating myself but the educational TV shows of the 70s made learning fun. Music, dance, acting, puppetry, and theatrics were used to educate children. I guarantee most Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers can remember at least one lesson or song from the shows.  Many post secondary schools go to great lengths to employ the latest teaching, learning technology, and strategies to create a meaningful and adaptive (individualized) learning experience for kids. These new approaches are based on past models just with the added flare of technology. Why would we expect anything less as young or older adults entering higher education? In fact, the wish is that the college experience is building on or acting as an extension of the robust learning that is hopefully happening at the K-12 level.

Students enter the classroom with different learning styles, behaviors, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. Too often the words “teaching and learning are used as if the two are synonymous to each other. The concepts of teaching and learning should be considered independent yet interdependent actions that require separate attention. The assumption is that one equals the other which is not always the case. If we cover everything on our list (e.g., lecture, assign readings, administer a test, grade quizzes, and answer questions) then the lesson has been taught and students are learning. That is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact it becomes painfully obvious when you suddenly notice the blank stares from your students or the deafening silence that fills the room. Either the lecture was so great that all questions were answered or your students have zoned out. I suspect it’s the latter. There existing many learning theories that explain how people take in, process, perceive, and interact with information. Two of which are Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligence Theory” and Jerome Bruner’s “Constructivist Theory.”

Multiple Intelligence Theory suggests that each person possesses some distinct form(s) of intelligence that may vary in degrees. This intelligence requires information to be delivered through different methods and strategies to accommodate the learner. Eight types of intelligence are identified that can be used to guide how instruction can be designed and delivered to create a meaningful learning experience:

  • Verbal-linguistics
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Visual-spatial
  • Body- kinesthetic
  • Musical-rhythmic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist

Constructivism Theory suggests that each person constructs new meaning of concepts and ideas by relating experiences to current and past knowledge. The premise or bottom-line is that learning is more meaningful when students can connect that information to their current knowledge and past experiences. It’s as an active learning process where students interact, transform, construct hypotheses and make decisions based on their present understanding. The information is delivered in a context that students are willing and able to learn. It emphasizes hands-on problem solving and critical thinking.

Learning can and should be engaging for both kids and adults. Creativity and learning can live in the same space. If students are able to relate to the material, connect that information to their own experiences, and apply the new knowledge to real-world situations then meaningful learning has occurred. Instructors who have never explored or considered alternative methods of teaching are not only doing a disservice to their students but also the institution and themselves. We must find better ways to meet our students where they are instead of taking the sink or swim approach. Our delivery of services, curriculum, teaching, and instruction must be flexible or at least adaptive to the rich background and multiple experiences that students bring to the conversation and classroom. Teaching should be student-centered to ensure that learning is engaging.

What is a curriculum and why should we care?


The American educational system has always been the tool used to teach societal values, ideologies, and culture. Information is transmitted using what is referred to as a curriculum. A curriculum is an aggregate of courses and experiences set out in a plan. Students learn these lessons under the supervision and guidance of a school, college or university. The framework of the curriculum is supported by the social psychology of learning that emphasizes the knowledge needs of society. Organized by tenets, priorities, and goals learning is created. As the nature of the environment changes and evolves so must the curriculum.

There are three types of curricula: formal, informal, and hidden curriculum. The formal curriculum is the official written policies, requirements, procedures, and processes outlined in courses while the informal curriculum represents indirect but somewhat obvious influences (e.g., learning styles, teaching styles, co-curricular activities, behaviors, and attitudes) that impact the learning environment. The hidden curriculum is those less obvious but just as powerful social and cultural norms (e.g., beliefs and values) practiced.

A well-designed curriculum ensures that students learn the skills needed to function in a global society. Skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, conflict resolution, analysis, and information literacy. Additionally, students should learn specific skills of their major as well as audience-specific learning such as social justice, diversity, and tolerance.

According to Glatthorn and Whitehead, (2009),“what is learned in the classroom will relate to life and enhance individual students’ understanding of their world. Interactive learning and the incorporation of standards, outcome statements, and data-based forms of assessment will give students the ability to think for themselves and generate a better understanding of how what has been learned relates to their lives” (p. 166).

A curriculum does not remain stagnant but is a combination of several  units that provide updated information. Therefore, the curriculum is constantly changing to reflect the needs of the individual, society, and business world. The increase competition of the job market has made it critical for individuals to return to school for retooling, to  complete a degree or develop new skills to increase their marketability. These reasons alone make it even more so important that the curriculum not only reflects the needs of society but also teach the essential skills needed to be successful in a global economy.

One of the vital roles of educational leaders is to function as academic forecasters; anticipating the knowledge needed by the time students graduate and prepare them now. This type of preparation is conveyed through student expectations, lesson plans, advisement, teaching strategies, staff development, and collaborative spirit. Economic challenges have forced the U.S. to realize the connection that is needed to create a successful educational system. Educational institutions that were typically unresponsive to external influences now understand that closer relationships need to be fostered to not only survive but thrive during the  economic recession.