257. PsycLearn

Adaptive learning platforms provide each student with a customized learning path based on the student’s individual learning needs. In this episode, Anna Yocom, Linda Goldberg, and Alan Strathman join us to discuss how the American Psychological Association has developed adaptive learning packages for core psychology courses.

Show Notes


John: Adaptive learning platforms provide each student with a customized learning path based on the student’s individual learning needs. In this episode, we examine how one professional association has developed adaptive learning packages for core courses in their discipline.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are all involved with a psych learning project, which we’ll be talking about throughout the podcast. Let’s have each guest introduce themselves.

Anna: Hi, I am Anna Yocom. I am a senior lecturer at The Ohio State University in psychology and I am also a Content Manager for PsycLearn.

Linda: And I’m Linda Goldberg. And my role with the PsycLearn project is that of product evangelist.

Alan: Hi, this is Alan Strathman. I’m a content manager for PsycLearn and was a professor of psychology for a long time at the University of Missouri.

John: Welcome, everyone. We’re really happy to talk to you about PsycLearn. I first heard about this when I was working on a project at SUNY dealing with adaptive learning solutions. And we had seen some write ups of PsycLearn so we want to find out a little bit more.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Alan, are you drinking tea?

Alan: I’m drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Oh, a coffee drinker.

Alan: Sorry.

Rebecca: I see how it is. [LAUGHTER]

Alan: I had tea this morning this morning.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s good. That’s good.

Rebecca:: How about you, Linda?

Linda: I’m having an iced tea this afternoon. It’s hot and muggy outside, so something citrusy and decaf.

Rebecca: …and perfectly refreshing. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: That’s right. And sweetened.

Rebecca: Awesome. Anna?

Anna: I had tea earlier, but I have switched to water.

John: And I’m drinking spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Nice. I have some Scottish breakfast. Still in my pot today.

John: We’ve invited all of you here today to discuss the PsycLearn adaptive learning platform developed by the American Psychological Association. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this project?

Linda: Okay, I’m going to start with that. And there are a couple of overlapping facets to the origin story, so to speak. One is really a desire to expand APA’s publishing program. APA has a very rich publishing program, which includes publishing of over 90 academic journals, a very robust books publishing program, where many of those books are aimed at clinical practice, as well as books that might support the professional researcher, books that might support self help, and so on. And we found that there was an opening for us to make a contribution to undergraduate academic instruction and contribute to that portion of the path toward the profession. We also were recognizing as we contemplated this new project that there was a tremendous amount of disruption in the higher educational publishing landscape, a lot of cost pushback, a lot of desire among publishers to leverage technology. And we thought that perhaps not simply for delivery of content, but to improve the learning experience and to improve efficacy that we saw there might be some opportunity there.

Alan: Yeah, also, let me jump in. I think the developers also saw this as an opportunity to work toward some of the goals that APA has for the field of psychology, including, for example, utilizing psychology to make an impact on social issues.

Linda: And the field of cognitive psychology is one that tells us a lot about how we learn. So we felt like we could draw from our very own field in development of our final product,

John: Which courses have been developed for this platform.

Linda: So we started with a course for research methods and psychology and added a PsycLearn statistics for the behavioral sciences to that. These two courses are typically required for all majors in the discipline. And they also represent the most challenging content for many students. So we thought that seemed like a good place to start.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how this material was developed?

Alan: Sure, we use a backwards design process where we start by identifying what we want students to learn in each module and a module is similar to what would be a chapter in a regular textbook. These outcomes that we have in mind become Learning Objectives, and they really guide the content development. Learning Objectives are developed through collaboration, a conversation, maybe a hashing out between the subject matter experts and the content managers, and are influenced by a variety of factors, including how well the learning objectives address APAs guidelines for undergraduate education. And then there is a rigorous review process where other experts in the field provide feedback and often suggest additional learning objectives

John: Was there much of a challenge getting agreement on learning objectives. I know in many disciplines, there’s a lot of discussion of what should be in the core material in the discipline? Has psychology been able to overcome that a bit by agreeing on these standards?

Alan: Well, I think it is a challenge in every case, because everybody has a sense of what they think should be taught and what is essential for students to learn. Like I said, I think it’s hashing out. It’s sometimes a little bit of trial and error, where we identify a learning objective, and then start writing about it. And then at some point, we may decide that’s not the right objective to have. But I think in the end, the subject matter experts and the content managers do a really good job of coming to some consensus on what we want to teach.

John: Was the content in the courses, the actual readings and other materials, developed by the people who created the package?

Alan: Absolutely. We are a digital first product, with original content developed by experts in various sub disciplines in psychology. And this really gives us a big advantage I think over print textbooks. So starting from scratch, in an entirely digital environment, we can develop a seamless presentation, where we start with learning objectives, we present content, we design activities and interactive exercises, and then have assessments. And we can be sure that all those things are aligned with learning objectives. And we don’t have to try and retrofit learning objectives into existing content. And then just hope that assessments that we have address the new learning objectives. So I think being able to work in a digital environment allows us to have this really seamless presentation where we start with learning objectives and we go all the way through assessment, and all those things match.

Rebecca: You’ve hinted a little bit about maintaining the content, given that it’s in a digital platform. But can you talk a little bit more about how you maintain that or what that review processes is or how that gets updated on a regular basis?

Alan: Well, that’s a good question. One issue for us is that we’re still so new, that we haven’t had semesters and semesters of feedback from students that we can use to make revisions. But what is really exciting is that whenever we decide that we want to make a change, we can do it in real time. Think about a print textbook, whenever they decide that they want something to be different, they might wait three to five years for the opportunity to make those changes. With us, since it’s digital first, we decide something needs to be changed or updated or revised and we can make those changes in a really timely fashion. And I think it really helps to keep our content current.

John: And if you find that students are not achieving the learning objectives, you have the ability, at least, to make some changes, either redefining the objectives if perhaps the objectives didn’t work too well. Or if the learning materials weren’t quite aligning with that. How often is that type of change done?

Alan: Well, so far, we’re still into the development process, that we’re making those changes just all the time. As the products get older and more mature, I think we’ll need to do that less. But again, we’ll still have the opportunity to do it as often as we’d like to.

Rebecca: John mentioned at the beginning of the episode about his interest in this project related to adaptive learning. Can you talk a little bit about the adaptive learning component of this project and the platform that you use.

Anna: The platform that we use is CogBooks, it is a platform, I think, is really unique compared to other textbooks, because it allows students to engage in their learning, and really direct their own learning pathway. And that’s based on their understanding of the content. So instead of going through a whole chapter, and then maybe quizzing yourself or testing yourself, after each content page, they get some formative questions and they get to make their own assessment. They get to say, “Okay, did I understand that? Was I not too sure? How did I do on those questions?” And then they can choose whether they want to get that support material or not, which we think of as like, “Would you follow up and ask your instructor a question.” That’s how we think of this support material. So if a student is very confident with the material, they’re essentially going to get a different path than a student who might need help in a couple of different areas or a student who might need help in a lot of areas. There’s just more examples or more practice. So it can look a little bit different for each student, which is pretty cool.

John: Linda mentioned earlier that psychologists have done a lot of research and cognitive scientists have done a lot of research on how people learn, how have some of those principles of how we learn been built into this platform?

Alan: Well, Linda is certainly right. There is a lot of research on learning science. And because we are psychologists, we’re familiar with the research, and use that knowledge to help students learn throughout the product. I think the centerpiece of our efforts to use learning science is the inclusion of metacognition, that is helping students evaluate their own learning, helping them identify what they know and what they don’t know. And when they identify what they don’t know, then they could spend a little more time learning that particular topic. Often students get to the exam, and they haven’t really done a good job of testing themselves, identifying what they know, and what they don’t know. And the first time they realize they don’t know something is when they get to the exam. And that’s obviously not the right time to get there. And so we’re able to identify ways that we can help them evaluate their own learning. We help them in this process by incorporating those learning strategies that we know are supported by research. We present concrete examples throughout. We have frequent activities and assessments. Students get practice retrieving content from memory. And these opportunities are spaced just as the research suggests they should be. They have interactive exercises. They get practice in the elaboration, or explaining content to themselves in their own words. And really the process of taking material and from the jargon in which it’s presented to explaining things in their own words, is a really useful process for students to engage in. And we could have a whole podcast just on principles of learning science that PsycLearn incorporates.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the student experience is like for students that are using the platform? So Anna, you hinted a little bit at this with some of the adaptive learning components. But what does it look like from: I entered this space from the beginning, and now I’m interacting with this over time.

Anna: So students really, I think, approach PsycLearn differently than a printed textbook, again, not only just the fact that they would go through a printed textbook, and then maybe ask themselves some questions, probably skip over a lot of reading, because maybe it’s not very engaging or easy to get distracted with print textbooks as well. But one of the really interesting things is that they’re engaged with the content pages within them. So they’re not just engaged outside of content, like “Oh, refer to this video,” or “you can reference this activity” or “try some completely different platform to help with your reading….” but within the content pages, they get activities in which they’re asked to reflect on the course material. How does this connect to things you already know? So they get to respond to those things within the content pages. They get practice formative questions, formative meaning that it’s not just did I get this right? Yes or no. But they get feedback. So they would find out what a suggested answer was to a short answer question. They can compare that to their own. With a multiple choice question, they get follow up on why that is the correct answer, not just “Well, if I’ve missed this a couple of times, and they get multiple chances to respond, but they get some explanation about why that was the correct answer.” And so we have video questions, we have matching exercises, we have short answer, we have multiple choice questions, different drag and drop. So we’ve tried to just vary the kinds of interactions that students would have, the ways that they can practice answering questions. And this variety really helps maintain interest throughout. So they get to engage it in lots of different ways. It’s not just a rote memorization, but they’re actually applying the material as they go through each module.

John: So you mentioned formative questions. Are there are some assessment tools built in to evaluate students’ learning for grading purposes, for example?

Anna: There are. Yeah, so there are summative questions. And we try to have them associated with those learning objectives that Alan had talked about earlier. And so after maybe one, two, or a small group of those learning objectives are covered, there is a short sample, maybe 5…10 multiple choice questions where students have a few attempts, and we want them to get to about an 80% accuracy. And one of the nice things is if they don’t on their first attempt, they can actually go access those support pages then. So maybe they skipped over them earlier. And they thought, “Okay, I got this, it’s fine. I understood this page.” And then they get to these questions later on, these mastering the content and they’re like, “Well, wait a minute, I was missing some of this.” So they get another chance to go back to those support questions, and try it again. So then hopefully, they can get those right after three attempts. We don’t want them to be punitive. We want them to get engaged with the material and get to that mastery.

Rebecca: So now that you’ve talked a little bit about the student experience, can you talk a little bit about how this supports instructors? What kind of feedback is provided to instructors and maybe how instructors are using this in their teaching.

Anna: One of the things I really like, we all know, anytime that we can even maybe think back to our own experiences in classrooms, it’s a struggle getting students to read. But a lot of these classes, I mean, really all of our classes, if we’re assigning some sort of book, some reading material, we want them to read it. So how do we get them to engage? Well, that’s where the accountability comes in. So we’re giving them this tool, and then their instructor can see, “Okay, they’ve made it through this material, they engage with this.” So the instructor could choose to then reiterate that material in class, or they could choose to maybe take an active learning approach in class. And okay, now that you’ve had this background, everybody made it through, we’re going to apply it. And maybe not everybody got to 100% on every question, but maybe we got to about over 90% completion, which is what I would typically see in my classes. So you would have students who, even after a few attempts, would sometimes miss some of those mastering questions, but generally, it was pretty high. And so I could see that before I went into class. Okay, so students, as a whole, on average have got this. So I can take it a step further, where I can go back to those questions that were really challenging. So you get to track progress through each module, you can also dive a little deeper with individual students. So a student comes to you and says, “I’m really struggling,” the instructor can go in there, they can look at their pathway. Were they accessing the support material? Did they take those quizzes a few times? Where were they spending their time? Or if the instructor wanted them to cover it on let’s say, Tuesday night, were they doing it all Tuesday at 9pm? Right? Like you could actually see all of that. So you can kind of work with them like, “Well, I see you started this that night, let’s think about how we could maybe back that up. Like maybe we should pace this out at least a few days ahead of time, which is a really nice way to work with students.” And it also syncs with the LMS, the learning management system, so it really takes that burden off of instructors as well. So it’s talking to the platform that we get there. So we get this easy back and forth, which is really nice. So we can nudge students along with that, I would often encourage students to visit those support pages if they were struggling, like, “Look, I know this is really challenging,” or, “Hey, there’s more practice, if you just want a little bit more practice, you can go to some of those support pages to get that.” And the other nice thing is students can actually email right from there, which I think is pretty unique. So if a student emails me, I could see okay, they were having problems in statistics with variability and standard deviation. And it will take me as the instructor right to that page. And so then I can see that and I can say, “Oh, well, why don’t you try these examples here,” which was really nice. Instead of just a student saying, “I don’t know, I don’t get this,” they can let you know exactly where they’re struggling. So it provides a lot of options for instructors.

John: And do instructors get aggregate statistics on what areas students are struggling in addition to data on individual students?

Anna: Absolutely. So you can see that on the dashboard. You can see if there were chunks of mastering questions, for example, or a specific question that students struggled with. So you could choose to review that and maybe even go over some of those in class or go over specific topics in more detail.

John: How are instructors combining this with other face-to-face learning activities, for example, in face-to-face classes. As I understand it, most people use this as a textbook replacement, except a much more powerful replacement to a textbook. What other things will people often do to provide more of a sense of community or a social component to the learning?

Anna: Yeah, so, I think a lot of instructors are using it, just as you said, as a textbook replacement. And that’s how I have used it for statistics in particular. So it was taking the place of my other textbook, which actually was a print textbook that was online. And so I don’t feel like there were any losses. But we were gaining the ability to say, “Okay, we’re all on the same page. I know that everybody’s at least had some exposure to this. So now let’s talk about it. I can see where you were struggling. So I know we’re going to need more examples here. I know we’re going to need more follow up here.” Or “why was this question challenging? Why was this hard?” So I think drawing on those parts are how we can maintain those social ties and the social interactions we want whether it’s online, whether it’s face to face, or in any capacity.

Linda: I’ll just go ahead and point out as well that part of the content package that we’re making available to instructors who adopt, PsycLearn course material is a set of student activities that sort of exist outside of the platform itself and are available for instructors to assign or to bring to the class. They’re typically designed again to align with specific learning objectives and to give the instructor options for an in- class activity or an additional assignment activity. And that’s accessible to the instructor when they’re using the dashboard.

Rebecca: Sounds like some really great support materials. Can you talk a little bit about how this platform has affected equity gaps that we might be seeing?

Alan: Sure, I think there are two ways that PsycLearn is addressing issues of equity. First, we are designing PsycLearn to be culturally inclusive, that is we work to make sure that through examples, images, photos, figures, every student can see themselves in the product. Plus, our goal is to include the research of diverse psychologists and psychologists of color. And then I think the second way that we strive to be equitable is to design for universal access. We want the product to be accessible to all students, and so we make great efforts to do so. We use typography that’s particularly accessible. We incorporate transcripts and closed captioning, we have text-based alternatives for non text elements. And our efforts are well beyond what the minimum guidelines would be, well beyond what typical expectations would be, and I want to say that this is because we value this process so highly. We are keenly interested in making an accessible, inclusive product, and I think we’re really working hard to do that.

John: Have there been any studies of the overall efficacy of this program compared to alternatives?

Linda: Well, we have conducted some impact surveys, surveys of student users to gauge their impressions of the impact of PsycLearn on certain important aspects of their experience. Through surveying students, we looked at the impact on their knowledge gains, on their confidence in their ability to use that knowledge, and on motivation to complete assigned activities. And on the questions that we asked, to sort of tease out each of these thematic areas, we did receive very positive response. Now, these are, albeit, impressions of students. That’s sort of the first line of study available to us. And we feel pretty motivated ourselves by what we’re learning, by what we’re hearing from students. These surveys did also include some open text entry questions. And very interestingly, some of the criticisms that we heard were often this is a lot of time, this is a lot of work. But by the same token, we’ll hear in the very same response, but it’s very worth my time, and it really helps. And I feel confident when I go into the class, and I already know what my instructor is going to talk about, I feel more relaxed, I feel more able to pay attention. That kind of response has been very rewarding to receive from these student surveys.

John: With some other platforms, there have been studies that have looked at the impact on equity gaps, and they relate very much to what you just said, that basically, students come into our classes with very different backgrounds. Some come in with a very rich and strong background from prior courses, others come in with a somewhat weaker background. But to make it through an adaptive learning platform, the students who come in with less background can acquire mastery, but it takes a bit more time and effort. And the students who come in with a stronger background can race through a little bit more quickly. But much of the research does suggest that those equity gaps tend to be reduced. But it is at the cost of additional effort by those students who come in with a little bit less prior knowledge or prior experience with some of the material. And so I think that’s one of those real strengths of adaptive learning platforms compared to other formats like textbooks and lectures and so forth, where everyone is expected to move at the same pace. But as Chuck Dziuban, on a previous podcast has said, in a traditional course, everyone spends the same amount of time with the material, but they learn different amounts, when they’re working with adaptive learning platforms, they have to spend different amounts of time, but they all can achieve the same learning outcomes, they can all reach the same outcomes. But it may take more time to do so.

Linda: That’s certainly our hope, and some of what motivates the work that we’re doing. I feel like having respect for the time that our students need to spend is top of mind. We need to make sure that what we’re asking them to do is a good use of their time. And therefore this mode of delivery and the kind of content that we make available through the multiple activities and so on that Anna was describing. We’re giving our students opportunities to do that self testing that reiterative process and not simply trying to digest a narrative.

Anna: I always think back to a student I actually had in class a number of years ago, and this student went through the same class multiple times. And it was a class that was needed to get to other upper-level classes and was very frustrated, of course. And then we came to find out that this student in the multiple times of taking the class, the book was listed as required, but with either a digital or print textbook, you really don’t have any way to monitor that. You don’t know if the student’s using the book even if they have it. But this student had never got the book, just never occurred to them that, okay, this could be a really valuable tool. And so that’s really a benefit. I see. Like you were talking about equity, let’s give them this tool. But let’s make it something that’s valuable, that can really help them and if they need that added support, they’ll get it. But kind of level the playing field a little bit.

Rebecca: How do you see this platform evolving over time.

Linda: So we are able to work fairly closely with our platform partner, CogBooks. We’re able to contribute to their roadmap planning to some degree. We’ve collected feedback through a variety of channels, also, not only the student surveys that I’ve mentioned, but we also, in the past year, conducted a qualitative study that included student interviews and observations of students who were assigned to use PsycLearn. And this exercise gave us really valuable insight into how and where students focus their time and attention. And so for instance, through that process, we were able to get some real good insight into how they approach the summary of each module. And as a result, we’ll be able to give some greater attention, we’ve got some plans to enrich and make more accessible, the content that we placed there, because we were able to learn that they highly value that for later test preparation. So that’s just an example. We’re hoping to be able to continue to do those observational and interview studies.

Rebecca: So I’m really curious for each of you to answer this question. But what makes you really excited about PsycLearn?

Anna: I’m happy to go first, because I am a very energetic instructor. I will be at the front of the room, and I bring a lot of energy. And what makes me excited about PsycLearn is just the ability of students to be active consumers of their learning. I would love for them to take away something that is memorable, that feels unique. And so PsycLearn frees me up as an instructor, that I don’t have to go through every bit of background information in the way I use it in class, I can assume they’ve had things. Let’s spend time on things that are interesting. Let’s dive deeper into things. Let’s do more exercises for things that are challenging. And so the students get to think about and apply new ways of learning and engaging the material from the very first moment that they encounter the content.

Alan: Yeah, for me, it’s really about the inclusion of metacognition, I think it’s really helpful to have students be able to evaluate their own learning. I think this makes them do better on exams, and I think it makes them more successful in their entire college career. It’s also an important part of my own teaching. I have a lot of activities in class where students can answer and identify how well they know what they’re supposed to know. And what I often find is that students study, but they don’t know how much to study, they don’t know: “Do I know it as well as I need to know it.” And this product gives them a lot of feedback, really helps them understand if they understand the material as well as they need to. And PsycLearn really can do that in ways that regular textbooks cannot.

Linda: I would say that my excitement really comes from the big picture, the opportunity for us to deliver on these experiences that Anna and Alan are describing. But we’re going to be able to do that across the foundational courses in the curriculum. And so that larger picture future horizon is pretty exciting.

John: Well, you’ve already addressed some of this, at least in terms of PsycLearn, but we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Linda: Well, we have sort of talked a little bit about future and what’s next and our opportunity to be iterative. The digital platform allows us to be continually rethinking what is the best activity to offer to reinforce or bolster certain concepts. And so that’s certainly something that is ongoing. We can take feedback from students on how well they feel various content is supporting them. We’ll be looking at what we can do to encourage a greater level and engagement with that support material, so that students aren’t feeling like, “Oh, that’s extra, I don’t really need to go there.” Indeed, it’s extra. But it’s really vital, especially for students who might sort of marginally understand. And so the opportunity for us to deliver a reframe of a concept can make all the difference at that tipping point.

Anna: Yeah, and I think what Linda had said about using the support material is really important to us. So we’re really interested in applying these learning science principles that Alan had talked about to say, “Okay, what is the best way to get students to engage with this.” We want them to see that cool stuff we’re putting on those pages, if they feel like they could benefit of it. So we want to reach the students that need that support. So I think just diving in a little deeper and figuring out the best ways to reach them, to get them to say, “Okay, yeah, I could use a little practice.” Or “I could use another example,” snd really assess that learning of their own. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge we have constantly, especially when students are new at something, they tend to think, “Oh, yeah, I got this. I know it all.” And so getting better at that metacognition, I think, is really exciting to us.

Alan: Yeah, and I think for us, it has a lot to do with making a better and better product. I think about what it was like the first time I taught a course. And I equate that to the first iteration of a PsycLearn product. And then I think about what was it like the fifth time I taught that course or the 10th time I taught it, and how richer and deeper it was. And I think the same thing will happen with PsycLearn. We’re going to keep on creating a product that gets richer, more inclusive, and more likely to help students succeed.

John: I was really excited to hear about PsycLearn, and everything you’ve talked about makes me even more excited about the opportunity for this and I hope that other disciplines will start working on similar materials for their basic courses, because the benefits from this have been well established in terms of improving student learning and reducing some of the equity gaps. Thank you.

Linda: Thank you.

Alan: Thank you.

Anna: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.