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Stopping the Cycle of Failure: How APUS is Using Personalized, Just-in-Time Remediation to Help More Adult Learners Succeed in Math

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Stopping the Cycle of Failure: How APUS is Using Personalized, Just-in-Time Remediation to Help More Adult Learners Succeed in Math

Adult learners who’ve been away from academics for many years often struggle with the foundational concepts they need to successfully complete required math courses. Some of these students have historically performed poorly in this subject, while for others, lack of use over the years has deteriorated their muscle memory on those skills.

At the same time, studies show that adult learners have higher anxiety and self-doubt when it comes to completing college-level math courses (Jameson & Fusco, 2014). At the American Public University System (APUS), where the vast majority of our 80,000-plus students are adult learners, our data underscored the negative impact of these challenges: many would take their first math course, fail, and leave college altogether. Yet if students passed their first math course with a C or better, their chances of persisting in their degree programs would compound exponentially with each additional course.

Looking at these numbers, we knew that if we could help more students succeed in math, more could achieve their goal of earning a credential. Exploring our options, we realized that Realizeit, a personalized, adaptive learning system APUS had selected to partner with on competency-based education courses, could provide the solution. We developed a framework called just-in-time online remediation and used Realizeit’s technology to bring it to life.

APUS’ just-in-time framework delivers pointed guidance and scaffolding on concepts learners have either forgotten or not yet learned by providing additional, personalized content and practice exercises. The system uses machine learning to recognize each student’s strengths and weaknesses and serve the most relevant material to the students – and alerts to the faculty – based on their unique needs. All of this takes place within our standard math curriculum, so students don’t have to take extra, non-credit-bearing courses that extend their time and costs in earning their degrees.

We launched the just-in-time framework as a pilot in January 2018, and it’s now in place for thousands of students in all sections of Math 110, the first college-level math requirement for most APUS students. Our initial data shows that for the adult learners we serve, this approach allows them to succeed where previously they have not:

  • Students achieved an average course grade of 81% overall in sections using the just-in-time framework.
  • 77% of students received an A to C+ grade in course sections with the just-in-time framework, compared to 66% of students in sections without it.
  • There is a positive correlation between students’ grades and the amount of time spent on the just-in-time, adaptive content: students who spent at least 1 hour or more per unit on the just-in-time content received a course grade of an A- or better.

How it Works

We began developing APUS’ just-in-time online remediation framework for Math 110 by identifying the prerequisite competencies and foundational knowledge students need when starting the course as well as those they would need to successfully complete it. Once this information was mapped out, we then assembled the associated learning materials and assessments leveraging open education resources (OER). With all this in place, the course – and the just-in-time framework – can offer targeted remediation based on multiple inputs:

  • How the student performs against the prerequisite competencies on a placement exam (if one is delivered)
  • How the student performs on a pre-assessment of the competencies to be covered in the course for which they’re registered
  • The student’s ongoing performance as the class progresses

In Math 110, the process begins with a placement test. Instead of enrolling lower-performing students in non-credit-bearing, remedial courses, however, these students proceed into the college-level class. The data gathered on each student from the placement test carries through to the course, and the system uses this information to provide each student immediate, personalized remediation in the form of content, practice exercises and instructor engagement specific to his or her own knowledge gaps. As the course progresses, students are regularly assessed so they can continue to receive personalized coursework tailored to their needs.

Throughout the process, the instructor receives valuable insight in real time into each students’ areas of weakness and can intervene at any time. Additionally, the remedial learning resources are available to students at any time throughout the course to use if they’re struggling or need a refresher.

Beyond the improvements in grades noted above, our results to date on the framework’s impact at APUS show an increase in student satisfaction, as well as confidence, in their pursuit of their degree. We also saved nearly $100 per student on the costs for the course with this new approach.

Currently, we’re expanding the just-in-time framework into other math courses with high DFWI rates. Math faculty have come forward asking to use the framework in their courses, which has made adoption an easier task. Our plan is to continue with broader adoption in other subjects in the future.


  1. Jameson, Molly M., & Fusco, Brooke R. (2014, November). Math Anxiety, Math Self-Concept, and Math Self-Efficacy in Adult Learners Compared to Traditional Undergraduate Students. Adult Education Quarterly, 64(4), 306 – 322.

As Vice President, Academic & Instructional Technology, at American Public University System, Dr. Karen Srba heads a team of eLearning professionals who design interactive learning content and implement technological strategy for thousands of online courses.