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Much of the buzz about adaptive learning focuses on its ability to help students who need remediation. But a program at the University of California, Santa Cruz illustrates the potential for adaptive learning to help students at a competitive university reach advanced mathematics courses more speedily than they might have otherwise.

Like many colleges, Santa Cruz requires new undergraduates to take a mathematics placement test. For the last two years, Santa Cruz has followed that up with an adaptive learning opportunity. Students were told where they would be placed based on the test alone -- and then had the chance to do adaptive work to get ahead. One of the theories behind adaptive learning is that many students need to brush up on some skills, and may not need an entire course to reach the next level.

The experience at Santa Cruz backs that theory. In the summer of 2015, 722 students used the adaptive program in mathematics, and 84 percent showed enough improvement that they were able to move up to higher level mathematics (typically moving from placement in college algebra to placement in pre-calculus or calculus). Then in the summer of 2016, 731 students participated and 88 percent qualified for higher level mathematics courses.

In an interview, Jaye Padgett, interim vice provost for student success at Santa Cruz, said the experience of being placed in a lower level course because of one or two weak areas can have a longterm impact on a student.

"We often in the past put students into classes where they only needed some of the material" to be ready for a higher level course. "It can be really disheartening, very dispiriting to the students," Padgett added. "And that undermines their success."

The tool the students used was Assessment and ELEarning in Knowledge Spaces, or ALEKS. ALEKS uses artificial intelligence to assess what students know (and don’t) and provide immediate, personalized instruction for each student.

ALEKS has its roots in the UC system, having been created by University of California, Irvine researchers – with support from the National Science Foundation. McGraw-Hill Education bought ALEKS in 2013.

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