Adaptive learning  technology — the application of computer science and cognitive research to deliver a personalized, online, tutor-like teaching experience at scale — is growing in popularity for all levels of education. NEJM Knowledge+ brings the benefits of adaptive learning to medicine.

In medical training (residency programs) and in continuing medical education (CME), six common scenarios arise where adaptive learning outperforms other approaches:

  1. When time off the job matters
  2. When outcomes have consequences
  3. When the audience is heterogeneous
  4. When courses are repeated over time
  5. When evidence matters
  6. When information is changing frequently

When Time Off the Job Matters

In medical environments like hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehab centers, time off the floor is critical, so time savings generate instant ROI. By giving credit for what people already know and focusing on things they don’t, adaptive learning technology builds proficiency faster —  giving productive hours back to busy clinicians.

When Outcomes Have Consequences

Continuing medical education is designed to improve overall clinical outcomes. Unlike traditional learning approaches that focus solely on the learner completing the course (without any idea whether they’ve actually learned anything!) adaptive learning focuses on proficiency — helping the learner achieve mastery of a subject in the most efficient and effective way.

Adaptive learning can also uncover and remediate for “unconscious incompetence”— that insidious problem of professionals thinking they know how to do something when in fact they don’t. In the medical world, errors are far too common and can often be attributed to cognitive bias. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Patient Safety Network:

In the Harvard Medical Practice Study, diagnostic error accounted for 17% of preventable errors in hospitalized patients, and a systematic review of autopsy studies covering four decades found that approximately 9% of patients experienced a major diagnostic error that went undetected while the patient was alive. Taken together, these studies imply that thousands of hospitalized patients die every year due to diagnostic errors.

Adaptive learning technology helps people recognize and acknowledge gaps, and close them. In medicine, where outcomes matter, metacognitive skills can improve retention of knowledge and use of that knowledge in practice.

When the Audience Is Heterogeneous

How much do you know about the intended audience for the courses and texts you are using to learn? Are you wasting your time with “one size fits none” training without realizing it? Adaptive learning technology adapts to novices and experts alike  —  giving each learner just what they need.

When Courses Are Repeated Over Time

To keep medical knowledge fresh, material should ideally be re-studied periodically to combat memory decay. Adaptive is ideal for this situation, since the adaptive engine will skip any material the learner is proficient in and focus in on any content that the learner is unfamiliar with, is not confident about, or has forgotten.

When Information Is Changing Frequently

In evidence-based medicine, there is always a need to train clinicians on new treatments and guidelines. Educators struggle to choose between competing needs: create a “differences” course for those who may be already familiar with earlier standards of medical care, or create a full course for new entrants to the profession; get training out quickly vs. wait for source material to stabilize.

Adaptive solves both of these problems. First, since the adaptive algorithm will quickly skip through material the learner is already familiar with and focus on material that is new to the learner, we can offer a single course to novices and experts alike. Second, because the algorithm tracks learner progress with high precision, we can add content to a course incrementally (enabling an agile approach to learning development) and the algorithm will ensure the learner doesn’t have to redo material they have already seem.

In Closing

Adaptive learning provides benefits beyond traditional online learning, and quite often beyond classroom learning. Medical proficiency literally can have life-or-death consequences; adaptive learning provides an optimal path to proficiency for all professionals.

Nick J. HoweNick Howe is the Chief Learning Officer at Area9 Learning, which powers the adaptive engine of NEJM Knowledge+.