ALEKS Math Software for Differentiated Classrooms

Tracking is the practice of placing students on different paths of learning based upon how they did in the previous class. Nowhere is tracking more predominantly seen than in the math curriculum. Take it from me, I know. From a very young age I loved puzzles and math. In middle school I was invited to take a higher level of math but when they consulted my 6th grade teacher, she said I wasn't mature enough to handle it (I was a class clown aka bored). There was no way for me to move onto a more difficult math class and when I reached high school and took Algebra as a Freshman, my class was at comprised of at least 50% Seniors.

Even within a tracked math class, there are still many levels of understanding. Some took the class previously and need support while others still struggle with concepts never really understood years ago. I have been amazed to hear from students how missing just a couple of days because of illness put them in a position of confusion from which they have never felt able to catch up from.

At the school where I teach, we do not track our students, all 9th graders take "Math 1" which is intended to be fully differentiated. This prevents the "brain drain" of students into upper division classes but also ensures that all students are challenged to work on problems that require critical thinking as opposed to just "Algebra or Geometry". Differentiation is an enormous task because it requires almost constant assessment to see what students know and to determine what they are ready to learn next. I once heard during my student teaching, a teacher say, "Differentiation! Do they expect me to give 30 different tests and teach 30 different lesson plans?" Which is probably how many of us feel, that this is a utopian ideal that can never come to pass.

Over the last 30 years, Dr. Jean-Claude Falmagne has developed the Knowledge Space theory (a fascinating paper about learning and math) and many other advances in cognitive science. Based upon his research and a National Science Foundation grant, ALEKS math software was created to support and encourage students to succeed in math. I would like to share my students' and my personal experiences with you. 

We had tried other differentiated curriculum and software in the past but they were too time consuming to generate and often very wasteful of paper. ALEKS is completely based online and can be accessed from any browser connected to the Internet. The technical requirements are intentionally as low as possible so it can work in almost any classroom/computer lab/home/library/etc. Once a student signs in for the first time, they are given an initial assessment which upon completion they will receive a pie chart similar to the one below.

This tells the student and the teacher where their strengths and struggles lie. Based upon the aforementioned cognitive research, ALEKS will determine which objectives a student is ready for based upon those it already completed. The students can choose the order they wish to learn the topics and no two student's learning path will look the same. Students who happen to be working on the same topic will have different questions so they can work together without sacrificing learning.

Students complete objectives by working on various objectives that can be assessed/learned visually (graphs and charts), algebraically, linguistically (word problems), and many more. The software can determine whether or not a student gets it even if the answer was wrong and will continue to assess them until satisfied that the student has demonstrated mastery. If it sounds like I am anthropomorphizing ALEKS, it really has a strong dose of artificial intelligence.

After a certain amount of time, ALEKS will give a cumulative assessment to see what has been retained. If what was already learned has been forgotten or not understood well enough, the software will reset those objectives or encourage review. Teachers can also setup quizzes based around particular topics in order to assess understanding of a topic.

Now for the ultimate question. With every student learning at their own pace and different material, what is the need for a teacher or how do the students learn in the first place? Well in my class this is a messy answer. 

ALEKS provides an "Explain" button that students can click on to follow step by step instructions to solve the problem after which they can return and try a new similar problem. There is also a built in math dictionary and the option to see the question/explanation in Spanish so language is not a stumbling block. But, what if a student does not understand even after clicking the explain button? 

This is where I come in, being freed from lecturing an entire class, I can move around the room providing one on one tutoring to each of my students. It is a dream come true to be able to work with my students and learn their individual needs. Some students never need my help but for a moment to clarify, others need it often. Yet, I have never been in a situation where I could not spend all of the time necessary to help a student understand, and then they are back on track even able to help each other.

My students have learned to seek their own answers, via the Khan Academy, the Genie, and many of the other online resources. This teaches the students a skill that is far more useful than any one concept they will learn in my class. Yet, when they are frustrated they ask each other or me for support. 

ALEKS is highly customizable so you can create quizzes or assessments as needed. Teachers are often frustrated at the difficulty of acquiring or compiling assessment data, but with ALEKS the amount of data you can retrieve is astounding. Imagine being able to see what state standards your students are struggling most with or how long they were practicing math. This is the amount of information I can see at anytime with a couple of mouse clicks. 

In my classroom I see 80% or higher achievement on assessments which is astounding. Upon a student's request if they are ready, I can switch them into the next higher subject matter so they are not held back by anything but their own motivation. I have done this with at least 15% of my class and they are motivated all the more to keep going and love learning at their own pace.

ALEKS has made my math class a dream come true. I can finally be the teacher and support that I always wanted to be to all of my students. I should mention that we do not use it more than 20% of our weekly class time (some use it more and others less) but the confidence and skill boost they receive is worth it. The software is affordable to the largest district to the single child being homeschooled. I highly recommend you take the free trial to see what is all about. In closing, I leave you with some of the quotes that I have heard from my students as they use ALEKS:
  • "I learned to take my own notes instead of just mindlessly copying what a teacher would write on the board."  (from a students Presentation of Learning)
  • "YAY!" (A student's outburst when they finally understood a concept that had confused them since middle school)
  • "Let me help you, because I get it now" (a student who struggles in math but was excited to be able to help another student understand)
  • "He completed 10% of the Algebra pie!" (Me to my teaching partner and the resource specialist regarding a student who tested at a 3rd grade math level after spending a few months in ALEKS)

Check out my follow up end of the year post with more qualitative and quantitative data.

ALEKS is a registered trademark of ALEKS Corporation The ALEKS logo is used with permission from ALEKS Corporation.