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We see a significant opportunity to use what we know about learning and the latest technology tools to dramatically improve student performance—to close the 2 Sigma Learning Gap.

This gap was identified by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. He and his fellow researchers found that the average student who was tutored one-to-one using “mastery learning techniques” performed two standard deviations (2 Sigma) better than students in a classroom. (Simply put, mastery learning techniques insist that students achieve mastery of knowledge and skills before proceeding to the next stage of learning.)

Bloom argued that one-on-one instruction would be “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale,” and his proposed solution was to uncover those key variables in instruction that could be tweaked to improve student performance and then applied broadly.


The top six factors for improvement researchers uncovered (in rough order of importance) were the following:

  • Tutorial instruction
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student classroom participation
  • Student time on task

There has been a significant amount of experimentation and testing of these factors in the classroom and, increasingly, in online environments. In his initial paper, Bloom suggested that technology might be one way to scale mastery learning.

MindEdge’s approach

We design MindEdge Learning online courses and simulations to leverage technology to apply those six factors. We’ve integrated them into the five pedagogical tools best suited for adult learners. Those tools are:

  • Assessments
  • Gamification
  • Whole-Part-Whole Learning
  • Narrative Learning
  • Adaptive Learning

When we create courses, we look at how to best reach the learner employing these tools, with Bloom’s factors in mind.

Employing the learning tools

Assessments, for example, can be a vital tool in achieving Bloom’s mastery learning. Research shows that students who are continuously questioned about what they’ve learned perform better. Indeed, initial testing taps into the counterintuitive concept of “learning by failing.” Diagnostic assessments can personalize learning and help students focus on mastering challenging topics. Assessments address the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Feedback-corrective and Cues and explanations.

Gamification—using game design elements in educational contexts–can engage and challenge the learner in different ways. Learning feels more personal when playing or competing, and educational research supports the value of “learning by playing.” Students who gravitate to a game environment are likely to spend more time engaging with the educational content. Gamification addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Feedback-corrective, and Student time on task.

Whole-Part-Whole Learning (WPWL) presents students with an overview of learning content (Whole), then guides them through the specific components of that knowledge or skill (Part), and then asks them to recreate that content (Whole). A pedagogical approach that has been adopted by adult educators, WPWL helps provide context and slows down the learning process. It addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement and Student classroom participation (in an online setting, the process of recreating the Whole can be structured to mimic classroom participation through instructor-led discussions or video conferences, or collaborative group work).

Narrative Learning (NL) engages students through case studies, scenarios, and simulations and asks them to apply their learning. We’ve found that students respond well to the real-world relevance of NL, and research suggests that humans are hard-wired to learn through story-telling. NL addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Student classroom participation, and Student time on task.

Adaptive Learning (AL) is the tool with the greatest promise for closing the 2 Sigma Learning Gap. It directly offers tutorial-like help that personalizes instruction and focuses on individual learning challenges. Students are helped through difficult topics by individualized scaffolding, varied content presentation, and iterative drills and problem solving. We’ve found AL works best in combination with the other teaching methods we employ—it’s best to offer learners a variety of approaches. AL addresses the Bloom factors of Tutorial instruction, Reinforcement, and Feedback-corrective.

The following chart summarizes the way MindEdge employs these tools and their impact on students and how they relate to Bloom’s six factors.

Pedagogical tool Approach Impact on students Bloom factors
Assessments (formative/
Students respond to low-stakes questions throughout the learning process.
  • Personalizes
  • Frames the learning
  • ‘Learn by failing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Cues and explanations
Gamification Students learn through games and interactive exercises.
  • Personalizes
  • Engages
  • ‘Learn by playing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student time on task
Whole-Part-Whole Learning (WPWL) Students are presented with an overview of learning content (Whole), then guided through the specific components of that knowledge or skill (Part), and then asked to recreate that content (Whole).
  • Frames the learning
  • Develops cognitive skills
  • ‘Learn by reconstructing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student classroom participation (modified)
Narrative Learning (NL) Students are engaged through case studies, scenarios, and simulations and asked to apply their learning.
  • Makes the learning relevant
  • Taps into narrative structure (conflict/
  • ‘Learn by story’
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Student classroom participation (modified)
Adaptive Learning (AL) Students are helped through difficult topics by individualized scaffolding, varied content presentation, and iterative drills and problem solving.
  • Personalizes
  • Targets common instructional pain points
  • ‘Learn by focus’
  • Tutorial instruction
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective


Closing the gap

Initial meta-research studies have suggested that online learning matches or exceeds traditional classroom instruction, although certainly not by 2 Sigma levels. We’re confident that when the pedagogical tools are applied correctly, more significant improvements in student performance are possible. MindEdge Learning’s academic partners have seen completion rates and test scores improve in course with these tools.

Our experience with adaptive learning in several difficult undergraduate courses (Composition, and Critical Thinking) suggests that students welcome the personalized tutorial-like focus (with 95% of students finding the AL segments helpful). As part of our commitment to data-driven analysis, MindEdge Learning continues to explore ways to better capture the effects of different approaches on student performance–and closing the 2 Sigma Learning Gap.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge Learning. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, at Babson College, and at Boston University.



2 Sigma Learning Gap: See: Benjamin Bloom. (1984). “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational Researcher, 13:6(4-16).

Assessments: ‘Learn by failing.’ See: Henry L. Roediger and Bridgid Finn, “Getting It Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn, ” Scientific American, October 20, 2009.

Gamification: ‘Learn by playing.’ See: Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. “Does gamification work?–a literature review of empirical studies on gamification.” In System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, pp. 3025-3034. IEEE, 2014.

Whole-Part-Whole Learning: ‘Learn by reconstructing.’ See: R. A. Swanson and B. D. Law, “Whole-Part-Whole Learning Model.” Performance Improvement Quarterly, 2010: 6: 43–53.

Narrative Learning: ‘Learn by story.’ See: M.C. Clark, “Narrative learning: Its contours and its possibilities.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2010: 3–11.

Adaptive Learning: ‘Learn by focus.’ See: Jefferson Flanders, “Exploring the Iceberg: Why selective adaptive learning meets the needs of students.” EdTech Digest, June 10, 2014.

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Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Flanders

Narrative learning

Copyright © 2015 MindEdge, Inc.

MindEdge Learning now issues Open Badges, an online standard to recognize and verify learning, for more than 100 of its courses and simulations offered on MindEdge Online.

MindEdge Open Badges can be earned through MindEdge Online (www.mindedgeonline.com).

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Open Badges allow students and professionals to publicly share their skills, knowledge, and accomplishments online, which may help with future career and education opportunities. Learners can manage and share badges across the web from their Mozilla Backpack. (You can set up a free Mozilla Backpack at https://backpack.openbadges.org/.)

Learners who successfully complete their MindEdge course or simulation will earn MindEdge Open Badges. They can share their credentials online through social media and display them on resumes and transcripts.

“We see offering Open Badges to MindEdge learners as a way to help support their professional development and career aspirations,” said Jefferson Flanders, president and CEO of MindEdge. “It’s an attractive option for individuals who want to show they’ve mastered new skills and it will help organizations identify those who have the talents they need. We’re pleased to join the Open Badges movement.”

Open Badges are an innovative solution created by Mozilla with support from the MacArthur Foundation, Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC), and others. These digital credentials are verifiable, portable, and stackable. When Open Badges are issued, they have information “baked into” them, which enables institutions and employers to verify the issuer and check the criteria that the learner was required to meet to earn the badge. Organizations offering Open Badges include NASA, Disney-Pixar and others.

Copyright © 2015 MindEdge, Inc.

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