Have you ever been jealous of those students who seem to get great grades without much effort? Well, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: Those students are not necessarily smarter than you are. They’ve simply figured out how to study more efficiently using adaptive learning.

In this article, we'll explain what adaptive learning is and how you can use it to improve your studying (including by using Brainscape, the Internet's best flashcards app).

Learn more with less time and effort

Adaptive learning is about adjusting your learning experiences (or choosing tools that can adjust) to your own unique learning needs—rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all approach.

The key to implementing adaptive learning is for students to develop an acute awareness of how well they know certain concepts, and have honed their ability to focus on their weaknesses without wasting time laboring over concepts they already know. This is called metacognition.

Metacognition and studying

Cognitive scientists call the process of self-assessment metacognition, or “reflecting upon our own thinking.” Students with strong self-assessment skills learn more effectively than students who have not.

The good news is that it is possible to improve your metacognitive abilities no matter what your age, specialty, or intelligence. For example, several studies have shown that both children and intellectually impaired adults are able to improve their metacognitive self-assessment skills with the help of intelligent software. Considering that normally functioning adults tend to have greater metacognitive abilities than children, it is reasonable to expect that the ability to improve self-assessment skills is even greater for adults.

Tools to maximize adaptive learning

Brainscape is an ideal study tool for students who want to incorporate adaptive learning and improve their metacognitive accuracy. Our easy-to-use software asks you to rate the strength of your knowledge on each flashcard (on a 1-5 scale) and then conveniently reminds you of that confidence rating the next time you see the flashcard. You determine this confidence rating using metacognitive self-reflection.

Brainscape then applies these confidence ratings to determine the intervals of exactly when to repeat the content again, effectively adapting the learning algorithm to your unique study speed. The spacing of time between studying concepts is called spaced repetition. It's one of the most important factors of Brainscape's effective study algorithm.

Over time, whether you are studying online flashcards that you have obtained from our growing online market, or flashcards that you have created yourself, this ongoing spaced repetition cycle will hone the precision of your self-assessments while increasing your memory of the specific content at an unprecedented rate.

Perhaps the best part about your improvement in metacognition is that your new skills will benefit you long after your test-taking days are over. You will become a better note-taker (“Should I write that down or will I remember it anyway?”), a better conversationalist (“Do I know enough about this topic to opine on it?”), and in general a more efficient manager of your own knowledge.

Make your learning adaptive

The lesson for making your studying more effective is this: decide what you should study based on your own evaluations of your strengths and weaknesses. Tools like Brainscape make this easy, but you can do it with any study materials.

Try this:

  1. Start consciously asking yourself: Do I know this material? Give yourself a rating from 1 to 5, where 1 means "I don't know this at all" and 5 means "I totally know this".
  2. Then ask yourself what you will likely have to know for the test. What is going to be on it? Your teacher or professor may have given hints. But think about what you spent the longest on in class. That'll give you a good sense of what will be on the test.
  3. Then, prioritize. Start studying the stuff you are pretty sure will be on the test, but that you don't know very well. Focus on that. Then move to the stuff you know a little better but still need to practice, and so on.

Using those metacognition skills to adapt your studying to the highest priority will make your studying way more efficient. As Black and William remind us, metacognitive reflection is among the most critical skills that any learner can develop.

[Are you looking for more study tactics? Check out our awesome guide on how to study effectively with LESS total effort.]


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: King’s College.

Kerly, A., & Bull, S. (2008). Children’s interactions with inspectable and negotiated learner models. In Woolf, B., et al. (Eds.), Lecture Notes in Computer Science (pp. 132-141). New York: Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-69132-7_18

Metcalfe, J., & Finn, B (2008). Evidence that judgments of learning are causally related to study choice. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(1), 174-179. https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.15.1.174

Moreno, J., & Saldaña, D. (2004). Use of a computer-assisted program to improve metacognition in persons with severe intellectual disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 26(4), 341-357. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2004.07.005