What Learning Science Can Tell Us About Effective Digital Learning Tools

Digital learning tools are everywhere. Educators use them in a variety of ways, at different levels of integration, and for students of all ages. Some digital tools are simple, and solve simple classroom problems — others are more complex, and can even be utilized as a fundamental instructional tool in a lesson. But bringing digital tools into the classroom simply for the sake of “going digital” may not impact learning in any meaningful way. Digital tool selection and integration should be purposeful and the value of each program should be examined carefully. Learning science, or the study of how learning happens, can tell us a lot about digital learning tools — especially those that are more complex and draw from various principles and theories in learning science in their design.

Adaptive learning technology is perhaps one of the most complex tools you might find in the classroom, and is rooted in fundamental learning science concepts. A specific type of technology aimed at creating a highly personalized learning experience, adaptive technology delivers learning material based on student input. Here’s a look the important learning science research that influences the function and purpose of adaptive learning technology:

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1984, educational researcher Benjamin Bloom identified some key elements of instruction that can dramatically impact achievement. In his research, Bloom divided students into three groups:

  • A control group, who received lecture instruction and periodic assessments
  • A group that received lecture instruction along with formative assessments that determined when they had mastered the topic and could progress (or, the mastery group)
  • A group that followed the same mastery model, but also received individual tutoring

The results of his research made it clear that mastery learning and individual learning strongly impacted student achievement. Students who had received individual tutoring showed improvement over the control class by two standard deviations, and the mastery students showed improvement over the control group by one standard deviation.

Having identified two instructional components that were critical to student learning — mastery learning and individualized tutoring — Bloom remained concerned about how these elements could be implemented at scale in the classroom. That’s where adaptive learning technology comes in — it allows educators to supplement instruction with scalable individualized tutoring.

Deliberate Practice

Bloom’s research is the fundamental underlying concept that guides the function and purpose of adaptive technology. But other concepts influence it as well. Deliberate practice is essentially the idea that students who put in practice on a difficult task or set of tasks over time will improve. Similar concepts you may have heard are grit, conscientiousness, or willpower. Adaptive technology is designed to give students the opportunity to practice difficult tasks in a productive and engaging way.


Many educators are very familiar with the concept of metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking. Engaging in metacognition allows students to reflect on their own learning processes and make conscious decisions to pivot or improve when their strategies aren’t working, or simply to be aware of their knowledge gaps. Adaptive learning technology is designed to improve students’ ability to reflect on their thinking by breaking down each skill, progress monitoring, and repeating questions where they showed lower confidence.

There’s so much more to learn about adaptive learning technology — and we encourage you to do a deeper dive to fully understand this important subgroup of digital learning tools. This guide to adaptive technology is a great place to start to better understand what constitutes truly adaptive technology, how it can enable teachers to personalize learning at scale, and what other concepts in learning science guide its function and purpose:

To understand how adaptive learning technology varies from other common digital learning terms, like personalized learning or blended learning, see:

Lastly, find additional reading on available adaptive learning technologies, and how they can impact your classroom: