Personalized Versus Adaptive Learning

Posted by Ellen Simes, Guest Contributor on 10/5/16 7:58 AM

shutterstock_329832812.png.pngAdaptive learning isn’t new, in fact, it’s been around for quite a while. Though it hasn’t been widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, its time may have come. Let’s start with a look at what adaptive learning is and what it isn’t.

People commonly use the terms personalized learning and adaptive learning interchangeably but they are definitely NOT the same thing.


mobile_mentor_blog.pngPersonalized learning refers to anything that a company, trainer, or software program does to differentiate training for individual learners. This can apply to the curriculum or content chosen for a specific learner, or to the method such as eLearning, podcast, or video. Learning can even be personalized as it relates to the scheduling or pace at which the learner gets their training.

Adaptive learning is different because it responds to the learner’s interactions in real-time. You could say that a skilled facilitator is using adaptive learning when he or she adapts a program based on the responses and needs of the group. With technology-based adaptive learning, whether it is an adaptive eLearning program or an adaptive assessment, it involves responding to each choice the learner makes and based on that information, continually changing their path. Depending on the technology being used, it could change the content of the program, the sequencing of the content, or the assessment items.

Adaptive learning technology goes beyond looking at a learner's answer and deciding if it is appropriate or correct. It can also give the learner hints and feedback, it can direct them to other resources on the topic, or can recommend similar topics that might be of interest all based on the learner’s answer. This happens continually throughout an adaptive learning program, which means the progression is rarely linear.

Adaptive assessments change and respond based on whether questions are answered correctly or incorrectly. This change is often a result of the difficulty level of the question. These assessments can have a pool of questions about the content at different difficulty levels. The learner answers the questions until he or she has answered enough of the difficult questions correctly to achieve the mastery goal or until they are directed to an appropriate learning event.

So what does this have to do with training?

Let’s say you have a new hire salesperson. Personalized learning may consider their work experience and give them an assessment that will allow them to demonstrate their baseline knowledge level. Based on the results, that new hire would be given a personalized learning pathway with a curriculum track designed for people who have scored in a specific range on the assessment. As the new hire completes parts of the training, such as an eLearning module, and meets a pre-determined level of mastery, more training in that learning pathway becomes available to them. If the learner has difficulty at any point, they are directed back to areas where they can review and try again.  Each new hire may be placed on one of a few training pathways, or at a different place on the same pathway, and they may learn at their own pace. Overall, the learning takes place along a relatively linear path that doesn’t change that much once the person is on it. 

Training Plan Slide Templates for Sales Trainers

With adaptive learning, a new hire salesperson could still take an assessment to demonstrate their knowledge level. However, rather than simply putting them on a pre-determined learning path based on their personal results, the assessment itself would adapt based on how they answered each question. In areas where they scored low, the technology might direct them to the content that would help them to better understand the material. As they work through that content, the adaptive technology would respond to their interactions and continually direct them to their next learning step based on their actions and answers.

Adaptive learning has been slower to catch on in pharmaceutical sales training than it has in the mainstream learning and development world. This might be because of the highly regulated world in which we exist. There has been a need to know and document that our sales representatives were comprehensively trained on all critical knowledge areas. Some companies have been hesitant to rely on previous knowledge because they don’t know how broad or deep it goes; they are concerned that answering questions on an assessment doesn’t ensure comprehension. This is where adaptive learning technology shines because it responds to the learners' choices in real time and it can ensure that learners consistently know the material and are not merely “good testers”. 

As targeted sales training becomes more critical than ever to successful selling, perhaps it is time for the pharmaceutical industry to look at ways to increase the use of technology-based adaptive learning.

Topics: Adaptive Learning