Everything your business needs to know about adaptive learning

Cydnie Smith
Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
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Three years ago, my now-husband and I became the proud paw-rents of 2 French bulldog puppies. As any dog parent knows, training can be interesting, to say the least. But training two stubborn bulldogs? Some nights I still wake up in a cold sweat.

The thing is, my eldest pup, George was extremely motivated – so he mastered all the basic commands (sit, stay, wait) right away. In a matter of days, he was bored and ready to move on to more complicated tricks. 

My other pup, Geoffery? Let’s just say it was a little harder to keep him focused. 

As the weeks passed, I grew more puzzled. I just couldn’t understand why Geoffery was SO much harder to train. I mean, I was using all the same techniques. 

Eventually, with the help of some very expensive puppy classes – a lightbulb went off in my mind. They were completely different dogs! 

George constantly needed to be challenged. Geoffrey needed slower, more frequent refresher courses. 

Yet I kept feeding them the exact same training material! It’s no wonder I wasn’t seeing any real results.

What does training my dogs have to do with online learning for your employees?

I know, I know – training puppies is completely different from managing a team of hundreds of employees. But, the problems associated with one-size-fits-all training isn’t unique to French bulldogs. The issues you're facing while providing online learning for your employees are even more prevalent in the corporate workplace.

Today, many organizations prioritize upskilling and reskilling employees as quickly and effectively as possible. But as much as 70% of employees admitted that they don’t have mastery of the skills they need for their jobs – which makes sense.

  • No two employees have the exact same knowledge base.
  • No two employees have the exact same skill set.

So it’s entirely understandable that a linear eLearning structure won’t yield the same results across the board. Luckily, adaptive learning follows a more dynamic approach.

What is adaptive learning?

Adaptive learning is a content delivery method that assesses your employees' performances in real time and automatically adjusts to address their individual needs. Since people, priorities, and expectations constantly change, this data-driven system analyzes a learner’s unique training profile capturing things such as preferences, knowledge, confidence, behavior, and results. Then, the technology self-adjusts your learner’s learning path by changing variables like the pace of instruction, frequency of assessments, and relevancy of content. With these adjustments, each learner receives a unique learning experience designed to improve workplace performance.

How does adaptive learning work in a practical sense?

Think of it like this:

Two new hires walk into the office…

(Is it just me, or does this sound like the start of a joke about today’s corporate culture?)

One is a seasoned professional with 15 years of experience. One is an entry-level employee fresh out of university.

In a traditional eLearning model, your new staff would log into the Learning Management System (LMS), go through a course, and take a quiz at the end. If they pass, they will go to the next training module. If they don’t, they’d have to retake the test.

Here you have two different employees with two completely different professional backgrounds, and yet they’re given the exact same onboarding session.

The outcome? One absentmindedly clicks through information they’ve likely seen before while the other struggles to keep up. Like 88% of employees, both are left unsatisfied with their corporate onboarding training experience. 

How does adaptive learning improve the training outcome?

Adaptive learning, on the other hand, allows for a more flexible learning experience. In an adaptive learning environment, your two new employees may start with the same content. But based on their answers and confidence levels while completing a course, the learning system presents only the content they need to close their knowledge or skill gaps. As learning gaps are identified, the system routes employees back through previous content until they master the material.

Now, if only I had an adaptive learning system for Geoffery, I would’ve saved myself countless hours repeating “sit” and “wait.”

With my puppers, I was solely reliant on trial and error. I had to make a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of mistakes before finding a training system that worked. 

Thankfully, adaptive learning software works for you using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques.

How does adaptive learning work (scientifically speaking)?

The main goal of adaptive learning is to assess your employee’s mastery of a concept or skill in real time and then dynamically adjust their next lesson. To do that, adaptive learning software employs the use of different types of algorithms.

  • Content-based filtering: Just like your favorite streaming services, this algorithm uses data gathered from a learner’s prior knowledge, performance, and explicit feedback on the platform to recommend suitable courses, exercises, or learning paths. Essentially, it filters out repetitive material that your learner already knows to ensure employees stay engaged, develop new skills, and reach their professional goals.
  • Collaborative filtering: This type of algorithm groups together employees with similar knowledge levels and learning styles, then recommends a learning pattern that fits the entire group.

All of the data collected by these algorithms help create an ever-evolving snapshot of the learner. 

Basically, every time an employee engages with your training program, your adaptive learning software updates their profile. Then it utilizes adaptivity factors like performance, behavior, and confidence levels to trigger unique and nonlinear paths through your eLearning material. Overall, the whole experience is completely personal and tailored to the learner. 

But wait a second – isn’t that the same as personalized learning

Are adaptive learning and personalized training the same thing?

Not exactly. 

Though the terms adaptive learning and personalized learning are sometimes used interchangeably, there is one major difference between them: Adaptive learning is dynamic.

Personalized learning is designed to customize employees' training experiences to their individual preferences. While the learner may have more flexibility in curating their eLearning experience, training schedule, and in some cases, subject matter – the content that the learner consumes typically remains the same.

Adaptive learning is personalized based on your learners' past performance. Unlike personalized learning, no two employees may see the material in the exact same order or frequency. Instead, adaptive learning software dynamically targets specific goals and gaps in that learner’s knowledge at that moment in time…

…which is great considering that research shows “Learning effectiveness decreases with routine completion of simple exercises.” 

We’ve all been there – sitting at our desks, mindlessly clicking through the same compliance training module we’ve taken 15 times before. Talk about unmotivated. 

Adaptive learning helps mitigate motivation issues by consistently presenting employees with relevant and more challenging material. The best part? Many learners actually prefer it to traditional learning models!

Do learners actually prefer adaptive learning over traditional learning?

The Colorado Technical University experimented with its own adaptive learning platform to improve the retention rate in certain courses. Surprisingly, the pass rate rose by 27%, and the course retention rate rose from 9% to 95%. And they aren’t the only ones to see those kinds of results!

Two blocks arranged horizontally. The first block shows two arrows pointing up, with the text: Pass rate increase 27%. The second block is a two-bar graph. The first bar is gry and much smaller than the green bar to the right. Course material retention rate 9% (grey bar) to 91% (green bar). (Source: https://www.coloradotech.edu/media/default/CTU/documents/online-degree-programs/educause-article.pdf)

Wolters Kluwer also reports similar findings. According to their survey, 92% of nursing students who have used adaptive learning love it.

Why? Because, as learners, they felt the program really met their needs. 

As the algorithm shaped their experience through the learner data it captured, the training program adapted to what their knowledge needs were as they continually engaged with it. 

Instead of hitting them with a tidal wave of generic information, adaptive learning focuses on the skills they need to master that are unique to them.

What are some of the ways adaptive learning can benefit your learners?

It’s obvious that learners love the tailored experience of adaptive learning. But here are some other ways adaptive learning can benefit your employees.

It saves time

Adaptive learning can cut the time it takes to complete a course in half. Employees can skip over topics they already know and focus on the concepts that will make them better at their job.

It increases knowledge retention

Rather than presenting a linear progression of concepts, adaptive learning regularly reinforces ideas which allows learners to retain knowledge better for the long term.

It provides instant feedback

Some adaptive learning systems provide helpful hints, suggestions, and guidance to help learners as they work through a course.

It offers faster evaluations

Instead of completing an entire course and testing your knowledge during a quiz, adaptive learning allows employees to assess their progress as they navigate through each question. 

It puts more emphasis on goal setting

The design of this reinforcement system allows learners to measure their progress, track their goals, and plan their day in an informed manner.

So we know why the learners love the adaptive system. It’s enjoyable, it’s engaging, and it saves them from completing the same monotonous training modules quarter after quarter. But what’s in it for the managers?

Are there any adaptive learning benefits for training administrators?

For administrators, adaptive learning helps establish effective and time-efficient training pathways while improving business-based outcomes. Below are some ways adaptive learning can elevate your corporate eLearning strategy.

More efficient training

We’ve all heard the saying, “Time is money.” By prioritizing the most important material, adaptive learning makes sure your organization and learners waste neither.

Improved productivity and mastery

By incorporating adaptive learning into their learning and development strategies, your organization ends up with workers who perform better and produce more thanks to their enhanced skill sets. 

Increased competency (and ROI)

To achieve maximum ROI (return on investment) for your training program, your organization must improve employee proficiency. Adaptive learning helps identify employee competency and knowledge gaps (both conscious and unconscious) and addresses them.

Less work for administrators

In most traditional training courses, there is a lot of responsibility on managers to ensure that training content is relevant, courses are completed, employees are engaged, and learning goals are met. In an adaptive learning system, algorithms take care of most of the heavy lifting.

Traditional vs. Adaptive training. On the left is Traditional training with a fabricated UI showing a webinar in an LMS. To the right of it is some bulleted text: Difficult to measure results; One-size-fits-all training; Facilitates skills gap between employees; Lower engagement and course abandonment; Time-consuming. To the right is Adaptive, which has a fabricated UI of a mobile device with a multiple choice question on screen. To the left of this, is the following bulleted text: Measurable analytics to prove ROI; Personalized training workflows; Reduces skills gap between employees; Increased engagement and user satisfaction; Time saved for the L&D department.
Click image to zoom in.
Traditional learning
Adaptive learning
Difficult to measure results
Measurable analytics to prove ROI
One-size-fits-all training
Personalized training workflows
Facilitates skills gap between employees
Reduces skills gap between employees
Lower engagement and course abandonment
Increased engagement and user satisfaction
Time saved for the L&D department

Ultimately, adaptive learning provides a win-win option for both employees and their leadership teams. It benefits workers by giving them engaging ways to improve their skills. It benefits managers by maximizing efficiency and helping them achieve their organizational goals within a short period of time. Overall, this makes the training process more interesting and effective – which comes in handy when it comes to upskilling your employees, meeting your business objectives, and improving your bottom line.

How can adaptive learning fit into my training use case?

Okay – we know there are a LOT of benefits to adaptive learning. Now let’s see how it functions in a “real” workplace situation. Take this use case, for instance:

Imagine you have a new hire. The goal of your onboarding process is to help your employee learn about your organization and get a full grasp of their new role. 

In this particular use case, their eLearning experience is limited to a short course where they get hit with a whirlwind of information – once. Then they’re just expected to remember it.

The thing is, according to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, the average student forgets 70% of new information within 24 hours of learning it – which means they need repeated exposure over time and in different contexts to retain the material they’re taught.

Infographic with 4 blocks in a 2x2 grid. First column, top block, contains a donut chart with the text: 59% — Employees who say training improves their job performance. The bottom block also has a donut chart, and reads: 57% — Workers who want to upgrade their skills. In the second column to the right, top block, shows a representative line graph of a forgetting curve. The y-axis goes from 0 to 100%; the x-axis goes from day 1 to 3. The line on the graph starts at 100%, but takes a steep decline to approximately 20% by day 1, continuing downward from day 2 onward, at a much more even pace. At the 20% mark on day one is an exclamation point with text above it that reads: FOrgetting 70% of what they learned within 24 hours. In the second block of column 2, is an icon of a person's head with a brain, and beside it, the text: How can you help your learners retain more? (Source: https://www.learningguild.com/articles/1379/brain-science-the-forgetting-curvethe-dirty-secret-of-corporate-training/)

Adaptive learning ensures that your onboarding efforts are effective by reinforcing content, reminding the learner of important details, and challenging the employee to recall and apply information in different ways while on the job. That way, when your employee does begin performing their role, they’re more confident, more engaged, and ultimately more productive.

It is important to remember great eLearning doesn’t stop at employee onboarding. A SurveyMonkey survey shows that 59% of employees say training improves their overall job performance, while a Gallup poll reveals 57% of workers want to upgrade their skills.

How can adaptive learning extend your onboarding program into everboarding?

Adaptive learning makes it easy to go beyond static onboarding by calibrating the eLearning experience every time employees engage with the learning platform. This is particularly useful for organizations and industries that require employees to learn and retain new information at record speed. Take frontline workers, for example.

In what ways can adaptive learning help in training frontline workers?

For frontline workers, efficiency in training is crucial because time “on the job” is critical to operations. Yet many don’t have time to sit through unnecessary training modules. When they do, many struggle to devote their focus and attention during a lengthy module for various reasons, which is a challenge facing any workplace.

According to the Microsoft Work Trend Index, one-third of all surveyed frontline workers said they don’t have the right tools to do their job effectively. This number jumps to 41% for workers in non-management positions. In addition to the lack of proper tools and tech, 55% of workers report that they’ve had to use new technology out in the field with no formal training or practice. This lack of proper training leaves many employees with major knowledge gaps that can lead to potentially grave mistakes.

Adaptive learning is a simple way to address these gaps before they become real-world problems. Not only does it help essential employees learn new material fast, but it also helps boost employee performance through reinforcement training without requiring any action from an administrator or manager.

In essence, adaptive learning makes every minute of training really count.

Now you may be thinking, what if my organization doesn’t consist of frontline workers? How can adaptive learning help with quarterly requirements like compliance training?

Can adaptive learning help with compliance training?

When it comes to compliance training, most organizations typically employ a Point A-to-Point B approach to eLearning. But a survey conducted by Deloitte suggests 68 percent of respondents don’t feel confident that their corporate training programs are working. That’s because completing training and actually learning and applying the principles of that training are two very different things.

The linear eLearning approach ensures that you successfully tick your compliance training check box, but you run the risk of employees putting the course on a second screen and clicking on it every so often just to get it over with.

Adaptive learning creates a lot more opportunity for the learner to interact with the training – and allows the training to interact right back. Because adaptive training is simulation-based, employees engage with the course in a way that directly applies to them and their performance. Knowledge retention increases because the compliance training is relevant in a way that can’t be duplicated in a linear course. Managers, administrators, and compliance officers can then measure, analyze, and incorporate the data derived from employee interactions into future strategies.

Now say you don’t need adaptive training for onboarding or compliance training, but you do want to focus on upskilling and re-skilling your employees. How can adaptive learning help in that instance?

How can adaptive learning help with my employee’s skill development?

To help demonstrate how a training manager may apply adaptive learning in the corporate workplace, let’s say you work in a call center. 

It’s the first day of employee training, and you have 30 representatives to get up to speed. Some have worked in your organization for years (in different divisions), some have worked for other companies, and others are brand new to the call-center world.

For long-time employees, it makes no sense to educate them on company policy (if they already know it).

For seasoned professionals, it’s also not a good use of resources to train them on soft skills they’ve already mastered.

But it’s also not fair to throw the new kids into the deep end with no formal onboarding.

So how do you train everyone as quickly and efficiently as possible?

(I think you already know what I’m going to say.)

Adaptive learning takes note of all the different stages of skill development and uses them to create custom training paths that suit each employee. This means the new hires and seasoned veterans will have different eLearning experiences even though they are in the same class. Adaptive learning also offers the opportunity to test proficiency levels in each employee to help identify areas where they might still need further training. As a result, you, as the administrator, get an efficient and productive learning system that gets employees the skills they need as quickly as possible.

The beauty of adaptive learning is it changes and evolves with each learner. It’s not limited to any one course, topic, or industry. 

Can adaptive learning work for my industry?

Okay – I’ll be honest. I’m a pretty illustrative person, and sometimes I have difficulty visualizing how a concept might actually relate to me. 

So to make things easy for all the learners out there like me, here’s how adaptive learning can benefit common industries.


When it comes to healthcare training, being able to retain critical information can be a matter of life or death. With adaptive training, your staff will be asked questions they answer incorrectly more frequently, helping them to absorb crucial material.


In the hospitality industry, customers demand and deserve an excellent experience – but a great employee attitude can only go so far. Adaptive learning takes your staff the rest of the way. Micro-courses keep employees up-to-date about products, brand policies, and process knowledge to produce an exceptional service team.


The safety of your team shouldn’t rely on pamphlets and training videos once a year. To create the safest work environment possible, employees need continuous and relevant training. Not only does adaptive learning allow for more year-round training, but it also connects the material your employees learn to their actual roles, which boosts retention, engagement, and in some cases, morale.


The retail industry often sees hundreds of employees with different knowledge and skill levels. So when it comes to training, it can be difficult to differentiate the novices from the senior staff. Adaptive learning allows employees to skip material they already know and only focus on the content they don’t – which can cut training time in half (and get them back on the floor faster.)


Sales teams are constantly moving. Whether they’re completing cold calls or attending client meetings, they just don’t have time to sit through a 2-hour training session. Adaptive learning allows them to take their training on the go. They can complete modules in the taxi, brush up their soft skills over coffee, or get coaching in between calls.


With an employee turnover rate currently hovering at around 95%, many employers are looking for ways to reduce this number. The only question is how? LinkedIn reports that in high-turnover industries, creating a culture of engagement reduces turnover by around 25%. Adaptive learning can help by facilitating ongoing training that promotes career growth and development and offering interactive experiences that boost engagement with the tool by up to 90%.

A 2x3 grid, titled "Can adaptive learning work for my industry?" In the grid, there are 6 industries listed, each with an icon and piece of text. Starting from column 1, and going down: Heart with a pulse icon — Healthcare: Greater retention of critical information for when it matters most; Concierge bell icon — Hospitatlity: Mastery of skills for high-quality customer service; Hard hat icon — Manufacturing: Improved safety awareness and proficiency in operational protocols; Shopping cart icon — Retail: Reduced training time by up to 50% for both employee and trainer; Tag icons — Sales: Higher proficiency in employees’ soft skaills; Delivery truck icon — Transportation: Comprehensive onboarding to reduce employee turnover.

I could literally spend all day coming up with these, but let’s get back to business. We know adaptive learning can be applied to any industry or organization. But the real question is should you incorporate adaptive learning into yours?

Should my organization adopt adaptive learning?

Since we’ve spent the better part of this article discussing the importance of keeping learners engaged, I’ve come up with this quick little quiz to help you find out whether adaptive learning is the right fit for your team. 

  1. Do you find your employees wait until the absolute last minute to complete the training you offer?
    If you collect feedback on the training you offer, do your learners say it's too boring or too complex to be useful while on the job?
  2. Do your learners inform you that their required training isn't relevant to their job or role?
    Is your training not relevant to your learner, or do they already know the information you’re providing as training?
  3. Do your learners find it difficult to engage with training materials?
    Are your training courses slowly paced, feature too much information, or that relevant material isn't accessible when they need to review or look information up?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then adaptive learning can help your organization provide better training.

A simple mock-questionnaire, titled, "Should my organization adopt adaptive learning?" Below it are three questions, and two checkbox columns labelled "Yes" and "No." Starting at question one and going down: 1. Learners struggle with the difficulty of training content ("Yes" box is checked); 2. Learners state training content isn’t relevant to them ("Yes" box is checked); 3. Learners find the accessibility of the training to be low ("Yes" box is checked). Under the questions is another block, which reads: If you said 'YES' to one or more of these statements, it's a sign that adaptive learning can help your organization.

But before you take the plunge and say,” Yes! Adaptive learning is just what my team needs,” let’s weigh out the pros and cons.

We already know that when implemented into your workplace, adaptive learning can save time and increase engagement which leads to more proficient and productive employees for your organization. Not to mention provide measurable learning metrics you can take back to your C-Suite and leadership team.

But, as with anything in life, the adaptive learning system isn’t for every organization.

Adaptive learning shortcomings or disadvantages

Sometimes, your organization may not complete enough training to require such a robust tool. In others, you may not want to contend with some of the shortcomings of using adaptive learning. However, be aware that while these shortcomings exist with adaptive learning, the benefits of adaptive learning may be greater.

A tricky setup

Adaptive learning systems require the creation of high-quality adaptive learning content in multiple formats, as well as interactive elements. As a result, training managers and designers need to put a lot of effort into planning out courses to ensure it meets your employees’ needs.

Lonely learners

In an exclusively online training system, learners may end up feeling cut off from human interaction, and this can lead to feeling unmotivated.

Making decisions from data

Part of the appeal of an adaptive learning system is it generates learner data as they consume their training. The downside is it’s up to you or your team to use the data to improve. The data can’t help if your organization isn’t willing to review it and make decisions based on it.

Adaptive learning can be viewed as ‘unfamiliar’

While adaptive learning isn’t a new concept, many organizations aren’t familiar with the benefits and can be hesitant to introduce something perceived as “new” or “different” 

The good news is, if you do decide that an adaptive learning system is right for your organization, these drawbacks can be easily resolved with the right system and a comprehensive eLearning strategy.

Training platforms like OttoLearn have a simple yet intuitive design made to enhance learning content and track your employees' progress and mastery. OttoLearn also includes gamification features designed to motivate and engage your learners (so you don’t have to worry about them feeling cut off or unmotivated). You can even mix adaptive learning into your current learning system to get the best of both worlds. 

How can I use adaptive learning with my existing learning system?

Whether you prefer a more blended learning approach or you have an LMS (or LXP – Learning Experience Platform), adaptive learning doesn’t have to replace your current learning system. Instead, it can greatly enhance it. 

Say your organization provides annual mandatory training for your team using an LMS (or LXP). But you realize that some employees are struggling to retain the material because they only interact with it once a year. You can keep their knowledge base fresh by implementing adaptive learning. Providing them with short bursts of material more frequently will keep them sharper and more productive year-round.

Just like George and Geoffrey, every employee in your organization learns differently. So why shouldn’t your learning strategy account for that? Integrating adaptive learning into your existing training system brings the principle of employee-centricity to the training experience and helps employees unlock their full potential by considering their individual needs every step of the way.

How do I get started with adaptive learning?

With that, you’re finally ready to start shopping for your adaptive learning platform. As you work through the process of purchasing your new learning system, you’re likely to encounter these key steps along the way. 

Step One: Identity your organizational needs

Map out or review your eLearning strategy to determine how adaptive learning can help your business.

Step Two: Outline your criteria

What are the features on your “must-have” list? Which tools align with your business objectives? Remember, you’re not looking for the “best” eLearning platform. You’re looking for the “best” platform for your team.

Step Three: Do your research

Research and analyze potential vendors. Compile a list of questions to help create your shortlist. Make sure to include questions about the vendor’s ability to create training modules, ability to integrate with other platforms, and ability to implement their platform in a custom way that fits your organization's needs.

Step Four: Demo the platform

After you complete your discovery call with a potential vendor (we strongly recommend this step), then you’re finally ready to set up a product demonstration. Make sure you ask any follow-up questions and explore your other options before you commit to one product.

Step Five: Finalize your purchase

Once you’re satisfied with your choice and sign on the dotted line – sit back and take a deep breath of relief because you’ve done it! You’ve found your new adaptive learning platform.

Investing in an eLearning platform is definitely not an easy decision. But remember, there’s absolutely no rush! Take your time, meet with your internal team to assess your organizational needs, and do your own research. Our learning hub can be a great place for an introduction to online training methods or to learn more about the different online training platforms available to you. Of course, if you are ready to take the plunge, you can reach out to our team to get assistance with the next steps – we’d love to help!

Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
Cydnie Smith

Cydnie is an experienced writer, editor, and blogger who believes that accessibility plus a dash of creative storytelling is essential to cultivating a memorable learning experience.

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