Learning Tools

Software Boosts Math Success Rates at Black Hills State U

An artificial-intelligence based tutoring system that gauges student understanding of math and helps them learn at their own pace has greatly boosted student progress and retention in college algebra at Black Hills State University.

"We're exceeding expectations with it," according to Gary Hagerty, associate professor of mathematics at the South Dakota university. "We've more than doubled the number of students [completing] college algebra and taking trigonometry.... It's a small number, but it means more students are thus getting out of trig and into calculus."

The system, called ALEKS, replaces standard homework with Web-based computerized individual study. Based on how a student responds to questions and problems, the software prepares tailored lessons for each. It also closely tracks results, giving institutions progress reports for each student. Students purchase the software, which is distributed by McGraw-Hill Higher Education, from the college bookstore just as they would a textbook; prices range from $20 to $99, depending on the course subject, its length, and whether ALEKS is used with a text or as a text replacement. There are no setup or site license fees.

The technology ALEKS uses was developed at the University of California at Irvine in the mid-1990s, licensed by UCI to ALEKS Corp. a few years later, and is now distributed by McGraw-Hill. ALEKS products for higher education include basic mathematics through pre-calculus, business math, accounting, and statistics courses.

Unlike the necessarily linear progression of a math textbook, the ALEKS program in use at Black Hills is structured more like a pie, Hagerty says: "You can open it in any direction." That makes it different from any other online math tutoring program that he's examined. "ALEKS is unique; they're only people I can find that do this." Other products, he says, largely tend to follow the structure of the existing textbooks with which they're paired. "But there's a problem with a regular math textbook," Hagerty points out. "Where do you put a problem that's needed in two places?"

Because ALEKS focuses on math problems and how to solve them, Hagerty says, he is freed to spend more time in class on a sometimes overlooked, but also important component of mathematics: theory. "I'm now at a much higher level of working with students because of the success that I've had using ALEKS."

And by allowing each student to work at an individual pace, Hagerty says, he is freed to teach to a wider range of skills. A student who barely qualifies for college algebra can catch up by using ALEKS instead of dropping out in frustration; an overqualified student can stave off boredom by working ahead until the class catches up. In both cases, the chances of retention improve.

Based on reports from ALEKS, Hagerty says that over a typical semester of college algebra, the average "A" student spends about 60 hours outside class on ALEKS; a "C" student might spend 45 to 50 hours. One current student who is struggling with the subject but is determined to pass has spent 212 hours on ALEKS so far this semester.

ALEKS also saves time by eliminating homework collecting and grading chores.
"It's doing a wonderful job managing this for us," Hagerty says.

Black Hills is in the progress of developing a textbook that can be used in conjunction with ALEKS for teaching college algebra; when that's complete, it may be offered to other colleges and universities that want to combine ALEKS with a specific textbook.

The university has also developed basic, intermediate and advanced online math courses through ALEKS that can be offered as standalone courses.

Because ALEKS tracks student progress so closely, studying its effect is relatively easy. In a 2002 study at Black Hills, ALEKS was used to replace traditional homework assignments in a college algebra course covering 251 students. Four sections of the course used ALEKS; four sections were taught in a traditional manner as a control group.

In gains measured before and after the course, three of the four ALEKS sections dramatically outperformed the control groups. Measured 14 months later, ALEKS students had retained their advantage and outperformed the non-ALEKS control group.

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