Adaptive learning: push or pull?

Drillster updates | 16-04-24

Adaptive learning, a method where learning content is personalized for the learner, is often associated with ‘directed learning’ or ‘push learning’. People believe that the development, anchoring, and retention of crucial competencies in an adaptive way leaves little room for a learner to choose whether to engage with the proposed learning object. However, adaptive learning can also be used for ‘pull learning’ or ‘self-directed learning’. Let’s dive a little deeper into the applicability of adaptive learning in both push and pull learning scenarios. 

Push learning is an approach where learning content is pushed to learners without their explicit request. This can be delivered through emails, classroom training, or push notifications on their phones, for instance. Conversely, pull learning is an approach where learners take the initiative to access learning resources or content freely whenever they choose, based on their specific learning needs, goals, and interests. Learners have their own set of learning objects to select from or, at times, they can choose from a large library accessible to all coworkers.

Read more about adaptive learning here

Adaptive push learning

Now, if we look more closely at adaptive learning specifically, there are several ways it can be applied. Let’s start with adaptive push learning. This approach emphasizes pushing learning content to learners whenever their organization deems it necessary. The table below outlines the types of training for which push learning is relevant and the value that adaptive learning adds to push learning.


Training typeWhy is it suitable for push learning?What is the added value of adaptive learning?
Essential foundational knowledge and skillsPush learning is often effective when there is a need to convey essential foundational knowledge or core concepts. In situations where learners require a common baseline understanding, a structured and guided push approach can be beneficial.Adaptive learning that includes spaced repetition ensures that crucial knowledge, awareness, and skills remain top-of-mind throughout the year. Consequently, the foundational competencies can be correctly applied when the learner needs to perform crucial tasks.
Compliance trainingPush learning is commonly used for compliance training, where specific policies, procedures, or regulations need to be communicated uniformly to all employees. Examples include code of conduct, safety, and (cyber)security.Adaptive learning significantly shortens the time to proficiency. The more experienced the worker, the less time they need to demonstrate proficiency on compliance topics. Timely reinforcement ensures that the forgetting curve does not negatively impact the compliance-related behavior of employees.
Urgent or time-sensitive information/skillsIn cases where critical and time-sensitive information needs to be communicated immediately, push learning is appropriate. This could include emergency procedures or important updates.Adaptive learning, which can calculate the forgetting curve for both individual learners and specific training topics, ensures that learners brush up on their proficiency just in time. It also guarantees that employees are prepared to correctly perform urgent or time-sensitive tasks throughout the year.

The learning challenges in the Drillster app serve as a good example of push or directed learning. Push notifications are sent when a learner’s proficiency in a specific topic is either not yet achieved or has fallen below the required proficiency level. Use cases include safety training for employees working under potentially dangerous conditions, or training staff who must be aware of signs of fraud or crime.

Adaptive pull learning

Looking at self-directed or pull learning, the emphasis is on providing learners access to a range of learning materials and resources, allowing them to ‘pull’ or retrieve the learning objects they require at any given time. How does this relate to adaptive learning?


Training typeWhy is it suitable for pull learning?What is the added value of adaptive learning?
Self-paced learning
Pull learning is ideal when learners prefer to set their own pace. It’s suitable for individuals who want the flexibility to choose when and what to learn, based on their specific needs and schedules. This approach is better suited for non-critical competencies.Adaptive learning often employs microlearning, facilitating learning during 'lost' moments, such as waiting for a train. Learners benefit more when they spread learning effort over several moments and days.
Specialized or advanced topicsFor more advanced or specialized topics, where learners may have varying levels of prior knowledge or interest, pull learning allows them to access relevant material based on their individual requirements. Adaptive learning ensures that prior knowledge is anchored and retained, facilitating the acquisition of competencies in more advanced or specialized areas. An adaptive algorithm calculates the forgetting curve for these topics. It enables employees to efficiently brush up on their proficiency just in time, especially if they need to perform specific specialized tasks shortly. This approach exemplifies just-in-time learning.
Continuous learning and skill development
Pull learning is well-suited for continuous learning and skill development scenarios. Learners can access resources as needed, allowing them to acquire new skills gradually over time.Adaptive learning can calculate how and when competencies decline if they are not maintained (known as the forgetting curve) and ensures that individuals can efficiently brush up on their proficiency whenever necessary. The learning history and the calculation of the forgetting curve ensure that learning occurs via the most efficient, personalized path to proficiency.

The Drillster app not only demonstrates that someone has achieved full proficiency in a learning object but also shows when knowledge, awareness, and skills decline if they are not maintained. Therefore, in the case of adaptive pull learning, it efficiently bridges the gap between what the learner already knows and what they still need to master. This ensures that competencies are refreshed just in time to correctly perform specific tasks.

Adaptive learning, push or pull?

Now that we have explored the use cases for both the pull and push approaches in adaptive learning, we can conclude that both methods can be used simultaneously. Depending on the type of training and the importance of specific knowledge, awareness, and skills, an organization determines whether to use a push or pull approach for each learning object. The key lies in the criticality of the content. Push learning can be beneficial, but when you add notifications for all learning objects, you risk overload. It’s best to implement push learning for critical and time-sensitive learning objects and let learners take charge of their development regarding the less critical content. 

Thus, with adaptive learning, you do not have to choose one method over the other: you can incorporate both push and pull for an optimal return on learning.