Flow and adaptive learning

Around 10 years ago, every second person I knew was preparing for the GRE. In our undergraduate hostel, the GRE was a gateway to our dreams of pursuing graduate studies abroad. One interesting thing about the GRE is that it is an adaptive test. The better you performed, the harder the questions became.

We humans are creatures of incremental progress. One of our biggest motivators is to be being better at something today than we were yesterday. To ensure that this happens, the level of difficulty has to be just right – too easy and we learn nothing new. Too difficult, we also learn little and give up out of frustration. The sweet spot between our comfort zone and way outside it is the zone of maximum learning. And there is a scholarly body of research that backs this up.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is arguably the best psychologist of our times. His surname, that goulash of consonants, is pronounced “six-cent-mihaly”. His work deals with flow – a state of mind we experience as we learn in the zone of optimal difficulty. We attain flow states when we are thoroughly engrossed in an activity and become unaware of our surroundings or the passage of time. Flow is a state that is fundamental to human happiness.

An adaptive system can be used to keep learners in a flow state by having the level of difficulty of a test correspond to the skill level of the learner. But an adaptive system need not be limited to the GRE, GMAT and the like. Self-learning is on the rise – 69% of developers today are primarily self-taught. We have all the required technology to be able to fit in adaptive testing to all our online, self-learning worlds.

One step further would be adaptive teaching – where a learning system could adapt the pace at which it proceeds or the complexity of the learning content to suit the skill level of the learner. As we move out of the molds of classroom learning, where several children are locked into listening to a teacher who keeps pace with the slowest student, adaptive teaching represents great potential for accelerated, personalized learning.

A decade after most of my friends have realized their GRE dreams to fruition, why is adaptive learning not widespread? How is it still not a thing?

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