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Shaping the future of math curriculum through adaptive technology

Student-centered ALEKS system helps drive improvement in Kent State’s remedial math programs
University Business, July/August 2012
Many institutions across the country are struggling with student preparedness and retention rates within their math departments. A large portion of these schools are looking to redesign their curriculum to address these issues. Research has shown that subjective methods of math placement often result in over- or under-placement of incoming students, resulting in high failure and drop rates. Kent State University has taken a fresh approach to placement and teaching mathematics. In this web seminar,originally presented on May 8, 2012, Andrew Tonge, Department Chair of Mathematics at Kent State, discussed the institution’s decision to redesign its placement and math curriculum using a program called ALEKS and how the change has yielded great improvements in student placement and retention.

Andrew Tonge
Chairman, Department of Mathematics
Kent State University 

Many of you have heard of the “math wars.” I prefer to talk about the math “woes.” There is a major disconnect between the output from K-12 and the beginning math courses in higher education. Many freshmen arrive badly under-prepared for college-level classes. This is a phenomenon that cuts across all states and institutions.
Part of the problem is the way in which we place students. Students usually go through ACT, SAT or COMPASS. But we find that the correlation between these test scores and success in college courses is actually very poor. In fact, GPA turns out to be a much better predictor of student performance, perhaps because a high GPA shows the student is more engaged in what he or she is doing. 
Success rates in beginning math courses are very low—often below 50 percent. They are very important for a variety of reasons: everyone needs to know some basic math, but also non-completion in math tends to be strongly correlated to non-completion at the university level. More than any other program, mathematics predicts graduation. 
In Ohio, the scale of the math problem is dramatic.
  • 40 percent of first-year college students need math remediation.
  • Only about 1 in six of these students will graduate within six years.
  • At Kent State, almost 75 percent of first-year students need remediation.
There are a variety of reasons to tackle this problem and a number of pressures from academic to financial—to move students more successfully through the math curriculum.
The traditional method of teaching math in a semester-long course with a teacher lecturing in front of the classroom is part of the problem. We see high rates of student absenteeism, student inattention, and the problem of a semester-long program actually reaching the areas where individual students have problems. Although modularization—breaking the full semester course into smaller segments (half-semester at Kent State)—resulted in some improvement, the results were still unacceptable. 
We decided to implement the Math Emporium concept developed at Virginia Tech in the 1990s. The basic idea is to abandon the traditional classroom. Instead of a teacher driving the information, the learning is driven by software. One of the big differences is that students are spending most of their time actively learning mathematics. The instructor becomes a “guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.”
Our Emporium has 247 computers that take up one floor of the library, which was a major financial commitment. But there were also financial benefits: For each student you retain, the tuition and subsidy benefit is about $10,000 per year. We also saved about $200,000 per year on instruction.
This approach is student-centered and firmly places responsibility in the hands of the students. This is important because beginning students generally need to develop a better attitude toward learning. We began the project in November 2010 and opened it in August 2011. 
The Emporium required the right software to be successful and we embarked on a massive search and evaluation process. After a lengthy review, meetings, demonstrations, and testing, we decided on ALEKS.
Our choice narrowed down to MyLabsPlus and ALEKS, both of which are excellent products. But we chose ALEKS because it is fundamentally student-
centered. It also has a very strong artificial intelligence engine that allows the student to focus precisely on what he or she needs to learn. Its individualized guidance program is excellent.
Students can choose their own pathways, built by an artificial intelligence engine that continually adapts to a student’s individual knowledge and learning history, to work through the curriculum.
ALEKS has been used in a variety of implementations including Emporium, online, hybrid, and traditional course settings. Placement and course structure are two main ways we implemented ALEKS.
The ALEKS placement tool is adaptive and provides students with a learning module where they can work for six weeks to fill in the holes in their knowledge and then can reassess afterwards. ALEKS provides a detailed overview of what the student knows, but placement is based on a single score.
At any given time, we have up to 240 students in the Emporium. We have four remedial courses: Basic Alegbra I, II, III, IV. We allow students in any of those courses to be present in the emporium at one time, with a single instructor and up to seven assistants who can be either instructors, graduate students, or peer tutors.
Students are assigned to the Emporium for 200 minutes per week in four 50-minute periods. Students can also use the Emporium during other open lab periods and can also connect to ALEKS remotely.
At the beginning of each course, the students take an initial assessment. That produces a detailed overview of the student’s knowledge in the form of a “pie” with slides representing a selection of new topics. Students make their own selections. They learn by reading ALEKS explanations. They can collaborate with each other, they can ask for help from an instructor or assistant. Progress is gauged through assessments they take roughly every five hours. The progress assessment then redraws their pie to reflect new confirmed knowledge. 
Grades are determined only by the percentage of topics they master on a comprehensive final assessment—not the progress assessment. The only thing that counts is the percentage of topics they can display mastery of.
Our results are preliminary, but they are very encouraging. 
  • Clear distinctions as placement scores increased.
  • Strong correlation between placement scores and final assessment scores. Placement was proven to be a high predictor of performance. 
  • Success rates for students placed properly based on ALEKS placement recommendations.
Comparison of results in Basic Algebra 1 from traditional programs in Fall 2010 to the Emporium ALEKS program in Fall 2011 show significant improvement. The percentage of students getting an A doubled from 17.1 percent to 34.8 percent. The percentage of students achieving an A,B or C rose from 62.5 percent to 71.1 percent.

To view this web seminar in its entirety, please go to

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