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.

High Impact Learning: A deeper way of thinking


There exist hundreds of pedagogical practices whose aim is to improve student development, teaching effectiveness, assurance of learning, and learning outcomes. One that has been around for years but only recently gained momentum is the concept of “high impact pedagogy” practices.  Students actively engage in the analysis and development of solutions to real-world problems. The purpose is to deepen the learning (high impact learning) experience and to increase social and self-awareness. Students collaborate with peers, faculty, community members, and other stakeholders to explore the issues. Examples would be internships, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research opportunities, and service/community-based learning projects.

One reason high-impact pedagogical practices have become so popular is due to the demand for more accountability from educational institutions. Proof that secondary and post-secondary institutions are providing students with the knowledge, skills, and real-world experience needed to compete in a global economy and marketplace.  Gone are the days when federal and state government blindly allocated funds to educational institutions without proof of measurable and tangible learning outcomes. As college tuition continues to steadily  rise and students are saddled with mounting loan debt, many question if a college degree is really worth the expense.

High impact pedagogical practices go beyond in-class lectures, rote Traininglearning and tests taking. These methods challenge students to dissect issues, analyze components, construct solutions, and reflect on outcomes. In addition to providing a rigorous, and robust learning experience.  The benefits of high-impact learning are: students gain hands-on experience and develop job-related skills such as critical-thinking, teamwork, flexibility, adaptability, and problem-solving.  Additionally, research has shown that high-impact learning experiences promote student engagement and academic persistence.

So, in my opinion, there are four key elements to creating a high-impact learning experience:

  1. Problem: The project or activity should be a real-life problem with real consequences and outcomes. It should require students to commit substantive time and effort to explore, dissect, analyze and synthesize information to deepen the learning experience. Regular, purposeful tasks are assigned, and project updates are required to ensure students are making daily decisions that influence the overall outcome. This creates a vested interest and commitment to the project.
  2. Collaboration:  That act of working with a group, peer or instructor allows students to foster relationships and interact with colleagues on a professional and substantive issue. Collaboration helps generate ideas,  question notions, and challenge students to think outside the box. In doing so, learning opportunities are created, and intellectual tools developed.
  3. Real-time feedback: Peers, instructor, and group provide frequent and real-time feedback which is critical to success. Issues, questions, and challenges are addressed sooner rather than later so corrective action can be taken.
  4. Critical Reflection: People often confuse reflection with remembering. The process of reflection requires students to take an account of the events, analyze actions taken, and finally, draw meaning from the experience. Reflective action enables them to challenge personal values, beliefs, and critique presuppositions.

By incorporating high-impact pedagogical practices into the classroom, instructors can create an engaging hands-on learning environment that promotes critical-thinking and problem-solving. These practices promote a win-win situation not only for the students and institution but also the workplace.


Re-thinking Education and Technology


Categorized as one of the greatest influences of today’s society, technology touches every aspect of our lives. The way we eat, sleep, drive, exercise, cook, read, socialize, communicate, teach, and learn have been transformed by a form of technological innovation. One only has to look as far as the hand (i.e., cell phone, IPad, MP3, GPS, e-books) to realize that everyday activities involve some form of electronic device. No industry has been able to avoid its reaches, not without unfavorable consequences. These technical means have not only sparked innovation and creation but also speed and accessibility. Making it possible to reach a broader audience while placing the world at their fingertips.

The field of education has been one of those industries disrupted by technological innovation. Though sometimes reluctant or slow to embrace change, higher education or post-secondary institutions have quickly had to adapt to a constantly changing learning environment; adopting new teaching and learning practices. First it was to address the learning behaviors of the millennials generation, those considered digital natives, now Generation Z (Gen-Z). Gen-Z will expect the same level of technological innovation centered on social media which will be critical to their social and academic educational experience.

Educational and Learning Technology are not new terms in higher education. It is only now that these fields are making their way to the forefront of discussions surrounding curriculum development, teaching, and learning. Ironically, secondary education has embraced technological innovation for years, but post-secondary institutions still struggle to effectively integrate its use into classroom teaching and learning practices.

This past semester Dr. Richard Halverson, a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in the UW-Madison, facilitated a discussion on rethinking education in an age of technology. Richard explained how technologies such as (MOOCs), gamification, fantasy sports, social media, mobile devices and Kahn Academy had drastically changed the way institutions teach and delivery instruction. The landscape of learning is now tech2becoming a more social and interactive experience instead of a series of isolated and disconnected activities.

Dr. Halverson cautions not to select technology solely based on its newness or popularity but on teaching and learning objectives. Culture should determine technology use. Decide what type of learning environment you want to create and the learning management system (LMS) to best accomplish this goal. That means understanding the difference between technologies that are content-centered vs. technologies that are learner-centered.

Technology for Content

  • Focus is on content mastery
  • Regulated by standards (i.e., district, local, state, federal)
  • Emphasis is on accountability for meeting standards
  • Democratic; basis progress on learning for all
  • Schools create and manage learning environment

Technology for Learners

  • Emphasis is on means to the user’s end
  • Learning is random not organized
  • Several learning opportunities (intentional and unintentional)
  • Meritocratic; basis progress on individual ability and talent
  • Learners create and manage learning environment

In the past, educational institutions have practiced a single model for the delivering of instruction. The teaching of a particular discipline or subject took place in a school (brick and mortar), and transmission of that knowledge was from the teacher to the student. Course content guided lesson delivery while the student assumed a passive role in the learning process.

Technological innovation has made it possible for knowledge to be fluid, flowing back and forth between teacher-student and peer-peer. Instruction can be student and learning centered while also creating a social learning space. Establishing virtual affinity spaces can encourage students to share ideas, ask questions, mentor, collaborate on projects and join groups of interest. This “participatory culture” allows students to form relationships and build networks. Instead of assuming a passive role students are active participants in their learning. The instructor becomes a facilitator of learning.

Students enter the learning environment varying in learning styles and learning behavior. What works for one student many not necessarily meet the needs of another. To capitalize on learning opportunities and academic outcomes instructors need to incorporate a variety of teaching tools and resources to engage students. That includes using a combination of traditional teaching methods as well as technologically based formats. No longer is the one size fit all approach acceptable.

Don’t teach the way you know, teach the way they learn!!!!