Evaluation of an adaptive online learning system


  • Edwin R. Griff is an associate professor; Stephen F. Matter is an assistant professor. They collaborated previously on a study entitled “Early identification of at-risk students using a person response system” published in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2008 as a Colloquium.

Dr Edwin R. Griff, Department of Biological Sciences, ML 0006, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA. Email: edwin.griff@uc.edu



We assessed the effectiveness of an adaptive online learning system for student learning and outcomes in undergraduate anatomy and physiology courses. Across six institutions of higher education, we compared improvement on posttests relative to pretests, grade distributions and retention between treatment sections using LearnSmart, an adaptive learning system developed by McGraw Hill Higher Education (MHHE), and control sections given questions online from an MHHE test bank. Overall, we found no significant improvement in any metric between sections using LearnSmart and those given online questions. There were significant differences among schools, with two of the six schools showing consistently better results in the treatment sections relative to the controls. We could not identify any particular differences between these schools and those not showing improvement. We speculate that this adaptive learning system may perform best when course goals are closely aligned with texts and the adaptive learning system.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic

  • • Computer-assisted learning has been successful in many fields.
  • • Computer-assisted leaning has been generally successful in anatomy and physiology.
  • • We are the first to test the effects of adaptive learning in anatomy and physiology.

What this paper adds

  • • We find no general improvement of adaptive learning versus extra quiz questions.
  • • Any improvement appears to be institution/course specific.

Implications for practice and/or policy

  • • We found no specific factors related to improvement or not when using an adaptive learning system.
  • • We speculate that benefits of the system tested only accrue when the course learning objectives closely match those of the textbook and adaptive learning system.