One Size Does Not Fit All: Adaptive Courseware in U.S. History Instruction

Denise E. Bates

I have a tendency to view new instructional technologies with a touch of suspicion—even dread. On a regular basis, I’m bombarded with messages introducing the latest digital learning tool promising to “transform” history instruction or, even more boldly, create “paradigm shifts.” It’s difficult not to be skeptical. I just don’t want to invest time on potentially overcomplicated digital tools that seem to serve as accessories—if not distractions—to existing course designs. Yet, as someone who has taught online courses at Arizona State University (ASU) over the last few years, it has been necessary to keep an open mind about new digital learning tools and how they might be leveraged to teach a generation of students with increasingly advanced technological expectations.

One of the biggest challenges with teaching undergraduate U.S. history survey courses in both online and face-to-face formats is that instructors must assume what students already know or don’t know. Some students arrive with a strong historical background and can dive right into sophisticated discussions and primary source analyses that are the cornerstone of many history courses. Other students don’t have a strong foundation in U.S. history and require more time to build their knowledge base before they can effectively engage in discussions. The larger the class, the more difficult it is to cater the content and flow of the course to meet everyone’s needs, and some students inevitably get left behind. These are the students that often complain that history is dull, confusing, or irrelevant because they haven’t been engaged on a level that ignites their interests in making connections and growing their analytical abilities. Addressing this disparity is difficult enough in in-person classes, but I find this to be an even greater challenge in online courses.

In spite of its barriers, online education provides faculty with opportunities to think creatively and innovate their teaching approaches. This process involves risk, especially as we experiment with new technologies. I realized this when I was introduced to adaptive learning technology and its potential for advancing history instruction. I was intrigued, yet full of questions about how to implement such a seemingly abstract concept. What would the student experience be like? How would it help support the instructor’s course objectives? I was relieved to learn that faculty at ASU had previously implemented an adaptive system for an introductory biology course with great success. So when I was invited to begin designing and piloting the first U.S. history survey courses to use adaptive courseware at ASU, I knew that support mechanisms were in place to make it happen. I was eager to see if this approach could provide a better learning experience for all students in U.S. history surveys—no matter their previous level of knowledge or interest.

Adaptive learning technologies have been commercially available in math and science courses since the 1990s. Only in the last several years, however, has it been given broader exposure with a growth in technical vendors to build the courseware supported by large grants, such as the $20 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Next Generation Courseware Challenge grant. Because ASU is part of this initiative, we were given the resources and support team to develop two survey courses—“The History of the United States to 1865” and “The United States Since 1865”—using the courseware developed by the adaptive systems vendor CogBooks, Inc.

Between the spring 2015 and fall 2016, I was part of a unique collaboration among faculty, students, and instructional designers at ASU who worked with CogBooks to develop these two courses. Each team member played a critical part in the design through their blended expertise and attention to different aspects of the student experience. It gave me a new perspective on what it takes to create digital learning tools. For one, I learned how far technology has come in establishing learning environments that not only empower students to take ownership of their own learning, but also energize faculty to think beyond the traditional delivery of content.

There are many forms of adaptive learning, so it would be difficult to capture what this looks like across systems. What I can speak to is my own experience as a member of the collaborative ASU and CogBooks team. The foundational content that we started with came from the OpenStax U.S. history online textbook that was adept at dividing content into discrete sections from which additional layers of knowledge were scaffolded within the adaptive learning system.

The goal was to redefine the way historical content is delivered to the students. In traditional content delivery, the chapters are fixed as students march through the information in a linear fashion. The pace and manner of delivery will work for some, while others might find it slow and repetitive or difficult and unclear. Such a delivery of content also assumes what students already know coming into a class. In an adaptive learning system, the content is sequenced within a network of information that adapts to the individual learning needs of each student as they either self-select or demonstrate a need for additional supporting content. If represented visually, one’s learning path is akin to a road map with linear movement from one area to the next, accompanied by a series of winding roads to dig for deeper understanding, as well as loops to previous content, if needed, as a way of reinforcing concepts. Simply put, it is a specially-catered learning loop.

A chart depicting the Adaptive Active Learning System by Dale P. Johnson, described below.
Adaptive Active Learning Cycle (© Arizona State University 2015, created by Dale P. Johnson)

There are various technical systems that guide students’ learning paths: 1) an algorithm that individually tracks their progress; 2) rapid remediation offered by assessments; 3) assignments focused on primary sources utilizing writing prompts and providing instant feedback; and 4) a self-evaluation feature that allows students to determine their level of understanding. The system makes recommendations for which material a student should study next and the student makes a decision about which path to follow. For example, a student without a clear understanding of what imperialism means while learning about the Spanish-American War can choose to travel deeper within additional layers of content which are embedded in the courseware to address knowledge gaps. In contrast, students not needing extra support can move at a quicker pace.

In addition to the fact that the courseware adapts to individual student needs, a number of other elements about the system excite me. For one, it serves as an entry point to a library of digital resources that are linked to the courseware from external sources. The opportunity to utilize multimedia, as well as the increasing number of digitized archival collections as part of the learning experience, is endless. Faculty can also adjust the courseware to suit their own particular objectives by prioritizing some learning paths over others or even authoring new material. The system also allows monitoring student progress on a class or individual level. The reporting function can track how long it takes a student to complete a task or tabulate how many got a particular assessment question wrong—useful feedback in reinforcing concepts or improving the content.

Another appealing feature about the courseware is its flexibility to different pedagogical approaches. It is not just about adaptive learning, but adaptive instruction. It can be paired with lectures or serve as a supplemental resource. When piloting the new system, I used the courseware in place of a textbook and as a launching point for weekly class discussions and a semester-long assignment based on primary source analysis. This appeared to be an effective approach. The students succeeded in these discussions and assignments—many even directly credited the courseware for helping them develop their ideas and locate primary sources through the links embedded in the system to access archival and museum collections.

After “The United States Since 1865” course was first piloted in the 2015–2016 academic year, I was able to collect feedback from forty-three students through discussion board focus groups. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Some of the most frequent comments were that the system was “straightforward” and “easy to navigate.” Students said they liked being able to work at their own pace, yet be made accountable by a system tracking their progress. However, the student experience with the self-evaluation bar was mixed. Some enjoyed measuring their level of understanding while others preferred the rapid remediation feature that relied on assessment questions.

Given my initial reason for getting involved in the project, I was most anxious to learn whether the system helped students learn the content. Several students addressed this issue directly. One wrote, “I have taken quite a few history classes in my years…and this provided an easy learning environment where I could go at my own pace and re-read and confirm information easily.” Another student shared that “this has literally taken a dreaded course and made it my favorite…CogBooks puts the power of learning in my hands.” Many of the comments reflect students’ previous difficulty with the subject. “Through my years in school,” another student shared, “history has always been a tough subject…I never felt that my knowledge was at its full potential when I read page after page of an old textbook…The CogBooks software, however, completely changed the way I absorbed the information…and it was much easier to stay connected to the subject.” Even among history majors, the adaptive courseware received positive feedback. One aspiring history teacher expressed a wish to have access to the courseware after graduation, saying “it provides all level of students with the opportunity to learn and test themselves.”

The outcome of launching adaptive courseware in U.S. history courses exceeded my expectations. Initially, I had a difficult time imaging how it could effectively be utilized. It turns out that it was one of the best things I could have done for my students, as it gave them an opportunity to learn on their own terms and at their own pace. Perhaps what has surprised me most about this experience is that even months after the courses ended, I still receive emails from students who continue to reflect on the experience. “I have never really found history that interesting,” one student said in a recent message, “but this class gave me a new outlook.”


DENISE E. BATES is an historian and Assistant Professor of Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University. Her scholarship focuses on Indigenous leadership, activism, tribal nation-building, and inter-generational mentorship in the southeast. She is the author of The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South and We Will Always Be Here: Native Peoples on Living and Thriving in the South