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Adaptive learning


Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

Adaptive learning is where the material that a student receives, “adapts,” or changes, based on their individual performance, often in real-time.

Adaptive learning is often automated and driven by technology.

In medicine, this approach can help facilitate learning with real-world problems - like a clinical issue affecting a patient.

To show how this works, let’s say there’s a medical student named Lindsay, who is part of a team of residents and nurses, and she’s taking care of a man who’s been in a car crash and has a serious head injury.

Lindsay can learn an incredible amount from caring for this patient - everything from the specifics of the medical case to issues around teamwork and communication with his family.

The first step for approaching this case is for Lindsay and her entire team to do a gap identification - to figure out what Lindsay already knows and to figure out where the gaps are.

To do that, Lindsay has to answer key questions. Like, what do I know about head trauma? What is the family most concerned about? And what are the complications that I need to be aware of?

Each of these questions could lead Lindsay in a different direction and could take her hours to read about - oftentimes leading to more questions - like going down the rabbit hole!

But even if she doesn’t go out and answer every last one, just having a questioning attitude helps sharpen her mind and makes her a better clinician.

After making a list of questions, the next challenge is figuring out how to prioritize which ones to tackle.

This is where Lindsay can use her best judgment and then get feedback from more senior folks on her team to get their guidance as well.

So, let’s assume that Lindsay does both of those things, and that she decides to learn more about or increased ICP, or intracranial pressure, - since that seems to be the main issue for her patient.

At this point comes the planning phase. Lindsay now has to figure out which resources she wants to learn from.

And the source of the information matters - she might look for a textbook if she wants to understand the specifics of how increased pressure affects blood vessels in the brain, whereas she might opt to check out a video-blog from a patient support forum if she wants to learn more about how increased intracranial pressure can make a person feel.

This step is particularly tricky because the best sources of information are ever-changing, and it’s hard for medical students as well as practising physicians and even patients to stay up-to-date. You really have to dedicate time to do it well.

Next comes the actual learning step.

Now a word of caution here - because a lot of students try to jump right in and use ineffective strategies like passively re-reading, highlighting, or cramming.

Unfortunately, these strategies don’t lead to learning that lasts.

What Lindsay needs to do, is actively learn the material, so that she can remember it long-term.