ARTICLE: Julee Peterson

How to build a self-paced or adaptive EdTech product that keeps users coming back

As instructors, students, and casual learners alike embrace a personalized, learn-at-your-own-pace ethos, self-paced and adaptive learning products are growing in popularity. This approach represents a key opportunity for EdTech products like yours — but it comes with an added layer of responsibility. 

All EdTech products must be user-friendly to succeed. However, when it comes to self-paced products and adaptive products, the pressure to deliver a seamless and intuitive user experience (UX) is much higher. After all, self-paced learning experiences are, by nature, self-contained. If students and learners can’t quickly figure out how to use a product on their own, they aren’t likely to stick around (especially if your product isn’t required). 

So what can you do to ensure your self-paced or adaptive learning product offers an easy — and possibly even delight-inducing — experience for your users? Here’s what you need to know to get it right. 

The Four Pillars of a Successful Self-Paced Learning Experience

Self-paced products allow students to interact with course material on their own timing. Adaptive learning products, which are typically also self-paced, provide a personalized experience by modifying the coursework depending on how well individual students grasp the material. 

While some self-paced and adaptive learning tools are used to supplement formal education, many are built entirely for individual use. Products like Duolingo, Udemy, Udacity, and Coursera offer nontraditional learners the opportunity to explore personal interests, gain new job skills, prepare for professional exams, and even work towards certifications and degrees. There are many such eLearning platforms on offer. But the most successful products all have one thing in common: They are unfailingly user-friendly in a way that prevents frustration and entices users to keep coming back for more. 

Whether your product is built for solo use or is intended to supplement in-person or online courses, your goal is to create a similarly smooth and accessible experience. The key? Focus on the four pillars of a successful self-paced or adaptive learning experience: guidance, encouragement, feedback, and flexibility. 


Self-paced learning products, whether adaptive or not, must be completely self-contained and self-evident in their function since many users will be “going it alone,” without the assistance of an instructor. This focus on an intuitive user experience should be in evidence throughout your product, including: 

  • Onboarding. Self-paced learners need to understand how to use your product and get started with their coursework. A superior onboarding experience will quickly orient users to your product’s main features and functionalities, allowing them to focus on learning their course material rather than your product’s interface. 
  • Next steps. Without careful UX research and design, it would be easy for users to get lost and not know what to do next. In the context of self-paced and adaptive learning products, it’s imperative that you give users a clear path forward. At any given point, your users should know what’s required of them as well as what they will need to do next. They should also understand how best to prioritize their limited time within your product. For example, you might include an estimated time for each individual module to allow users to make an informed decision about what to start when.  
  • Progress. Your product should use visual cues to make users’ progress clear at all times. This includes both how far along they are in their coursework and how well they are grasping the material. 
  • Remediation. When a user has trouble grasping a new concept, they may need extra help beyond your product’s regularly scheduled curriculum. Users can gain mastery of difficult topics by reading additional resources, interacting with related content, or answering remedial questions that reinforce core conceptual building blocks. Your product should make it easy for students to see when remediation is needed — and access the additional resources necessary to understand challenging topics. Your product should offer up these remedial resources in a “just in time” fashion, right when students need them most. 


Because self-paced students and nontraditional learners typically work in isolation rather than a classroom setting, it’s crucial for your product to offer encouragement and forward momentum. Otherwise, users are more likely to grow frustrated and discouraged — and possibly even quit a course — in the face of long assignments or challenging course material. 

Encourage your users by: 

  • Celebrating small wins. Look for opportunities to give users positive feedback and “high fives” when they achieve smaller milestones, such as completing a module or achieving mastery of a particular concept. In addition, consider weaving in reminders to take small breaks to help users pace themselves and avoid burnout. 
  • Using a “high watermark” to track progress. Students and learners can get stressed and discouraged if they see their progress jumping up and down as they get answers right and wrong, respectively. Create a more encouraging experience by visualizing users’ progress to reflect their highest achievement. Doing so allows their progress to go up but not down, which helps keep users motivated. 
  • Grading thoughtfully. Give careful thought to how you handle grading, especially in the context of adaptive learning experiences. Grading for an adaptive experience — in which students may answer many questions incorrectly before getting the hang of a concept — should reflect users’ ultimate mastery of the material rather than the percentage of correct answers. 
  • Offering remediation opportunities without calling out a user’s struggle. Present straggling users with remediation materials as needed — but don’t emphasize the fact that they are having difficulty. “It looks like you’re struggling to get this concept!” isn’t a message that will go over especially well with most users. Instead, try something like “sharpen your skills with these resources.”  


Your product should give students and instructors (when they are in the picture) the information necessary to make smart decisions and pursue successful outcomes. 

That boils down to tracking users’ progress, both at the individual and class levels. For instructor-led courses, make it easy for instructors to easily see which students are struggling and what material they are stuck on. Remember, instructors are busy. They don’t have time to dig through pages of data to identify patterns. By surfacing pertinent trends and issues using reporting and data visualizations, you give instructors what they need to modify their in-class content and intervene with individual students as needed. 


Rigid, one-size-fits-all workflows rarely make sense in the context of self-paced and adaptive EdTech products. The more you build flexibility into your product, the more you allow users to “choose their own adventure.”

For students, that may mean: 

  • Giving time estimates
  • Allowing users to work on multiple modules or topics concurrently
  • Offering additional resources as needed

For professors, it could look like: 

  • Flexibility in grading and completion standards 
  • Flexibility in how the course is structured and when specific content is served to students. 

As self-paced and adaptive learning EdTech products become more and more common, you’ll need to work harder to stand out from the crowd. By investing in a best-in-class user experience, you can put your product at the front of the pack.

  • Photo of Julee Peterson
    Julee Peterson

    As Accessibility Lead / Senior UX Designer at Openfield, Julee brings a tireless dedication to creating stellar user experiences that work for ALL users by leading our efforts to stay at the forefront of ADA compliance and inclusive design practices. She holds a Master of Science in User Experience Design from Kent State University. Outside of the office, Julee enjoys cruising on her motorcycle when the weather’s nice, gardening and furthering her love of cooking and baking with challenging new recipes. She is currently satisfying her thirst to learn new things by teaching herself to play the cello and speak Korean. 반갑습니다!

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