Inside A Newly Adaptive Classroom
Author: Office of Academic Innovation
Posted: April 26, 2018


Inside A Newly Adaptive Classroom

Senior Instructor Rachel Webb Pioneers
Adaptive Learning in PSU Statistics Course

"It’s all active learning in the classroom now,” says Senior Instructor Rachel Webb of her newly redesigned Applied Statistics for Business course, “No more than 10 minutes of lecture time in an hour and 50 minute class.” Once a class taught in a lecture-hall to 200 students with projections of Excel on a large screen, Statistics 241 is now a hive of forty students in a computer lab: active, questioning, and problem solving. Rachel, the instructor designing and launching the revisioned course, credits this shift in the activity in her classroom to the adaptive learning system, RealizeIt, around which she redesigned the course, the first time the platform has been introduced to a Portland State class. The learning system moves students through their content over the course of the term, asseses their knowledge gaps, and color-codes their progress, giving students and their instructor insight into their study habits and progress.

“I can see in RealizeIt how much time they spend on their homework, and how much knowledge they have covered, and how well they have covered the topics.”

Statistics 241 was developed so that RealizeIt is deeply integrated with D2L. Students and their instructor can log into D2L and immediately be linked to each week’s work in RealizeIt. “It’s updated pretty fast,” says Rachel, “so I can see in RealizeIt how much time they spend on their homework, and how much knowledge they have covered, and how well they have covered the topics.” This provides her insight into the specifics of why a certain student is or is not doing well in class. It also helps her see areas where the class is struggling as a group, so she can use the classroom time to address problems she sees arising. “Each week I did slight adaptivity in the activities in class, based off of what they were coming in with. For instance, week ten, right before finals, I had the lowest participation in their homework outside of class, which I could see through RealizeIt. I had a whole activity planned that I just scrapped because I knew nobody would understand it. Okay, everyone, we’re going to go into lecture mode for half an hour, and then you’re going to finish your homework in class and you’re not leaving until you’re checked off. I caught everyone up so that on Thursday, we could actually do the activity and get them ready for the final. And I probably would have just plowed through with that activity without the diagnostics, and I would have been frustrated, and everyone would have been having a harder time.” That final, it transpired, was the first final in the history of the course that was passed by every student who took it.

Above: Rachel worked with an OAI Instructional Designer and an UX Designer throughout the planning, designing, and launching of her course.

Because this was the first iteration integrating the RealizeIt courseware, the system launch came with surprises and challenges for students and instructor. Grading errors, typos, and system breaks showed up, with the students and Rachel, as well as the OAI and RealizeIt team, working together to identify and fix them. Students were vocal about their own ideas for the course, such as adding a PDF of the course content that they could use for exam review. They also recognized that the system also allowed new flexibility for exploration and review, freeing them to move around in the system and retake sections up until the final exam. “What surprised me,” says Rachel, “ is that even if students had a green (81% - 91% grade), they wanted to go back to get the blue star (91% or above grade), and they wanted more content to work on when they did so. I’m working with another faculty member now to create a bank of questions that are algorithmic, that will provide them with a lot more opportunities next term.”

The system also required students to fully cover material they might otherwise have skipped, a fact that Rachel ruefully notes students weren’t always delighted to discover. “Let’s say you didn’t cover the prerequisite material for this week’s work. If you answer questions about the next material incorrectly, RealizeIt will make your grade drop, and the student has to go back and cover the prerequisite material in order to go forward. It was kind of an eye-opener. I don’t know how many times I’m working through a textbook in my classroom and not catching that a student just decided that they aren’t going to read chapter 4 any longer. They’ll get all of those questions wrong on the final, and they might think that’s okay because they got their passing grade. But meanwhile, they are wondering why they are struggling in chapter five, which all requires prerequisite knowledge from chapter four.”

Rachel began the process of redesigning Statistics 241 in the summer of 2017, working with an instructional designer and user experience designer at OAI to vet over seventeen adaptive softwares. By the fall they had chosen RealizeIt, a system that Rachel prizes for its robust adaptivity and ability to integrate instructor-authored, original content into the course, and perhaps most fundamentally, its handling of math equations: “For math it’s really hard to find a product that does the equations and the algorithms that we need to generate problems. You need numbers that regenerate, those kinds of things. RealizeIt was able to handle that for us."


Already in the first term, she had replaced the often staggering textbook cost for her students with lower access fee to the courseware.


Over the next three months, she adapted her open-source textbook for Statistics 241 into a completely new organizational structure, working with her team at OAI on chunking it down into discrete pieces of knowledge that could be entered into the adaptive system, and mapped out into a knowledge map for the course. Team members from RealizeIt then build these into the finished course that Rachel launched in January of 2018. “This was a very different process for me for developing a course,” she notes, pointing to a sample RealizeIt knowledge map (see below), “ I usually look at a big picture and bring in things all together. This system, you need to have it all chunked down into little pieces so it can diagnose if they know that little topic well enough. You had to separate each of these topics into their nodes, correctly, and that required thinking different when you build the curriculum.” The time investment was substantial for Rachel. She worked for three months straight to build the new course. But the payoff, she believes, “is going to be great.” Already in the first term the course was offered, she had replaced the often staggering textbook cost for her students with a much lower access fee for the courseware. 

Above: Visualization of RealizeIt's knowledge map of a course. 


This spring Rachel is passing on Statistics 241 to many adjuncts in her department, and a class that once was challenging to teach and difficult to access will now be available in an entirely new, much more active format to many more students. When asked what these adjuncts might expect to see different, Rachel says that they will see a change: students who are afraid to ask questions about material they are confused or behind on during lecture time will no longer save their questions for their all-too-short few minutes with her in office hours. Working through the material at their own pace in class with the instructor, their questions come up quickly and naturally. And able to see their progress on the fly, instructors will be able to reach out and know what their students are likely struggling with. In fact, so great was this change last winter, Rachel says the usual line of students down the hall for her office hours was gone completely. “I have had so few students in office hours, it’s night and day. Nobody came. In fact most students who came were other people’s students.”