Web-Based Tutoring

Online System Brings Individualized Learning to Colorado State Chem Lectures

Homework assignments in Lisa Dysleski's general chemistry courses at Colorado State University were supposed to help students--mostly freshmen--understand the subject better and make them reach beyond mere facts and actually think. Instead, students became frustrated with difficult questions, the assistant professor said, and were simply giving each other homework answers.

Frustrated, Dysleski and her colleagues in CSU's Department of Chemistry tried several remedies, then turned to a solution that has not only solved the problem completely--it has resulted in several other positive changes in the large, 250-student introductory chemistry courses that Dysleski and her colleagues teach.

The product is ALEKS, a sort of personalized online tutor that has replaced traditional homework in Dysleski's classes with Web-based individual study programs. The software assesses each student's skill level at the beginning of the semester, then tailors learning goals and homework questions throughout the course to match individual skill levels and learning paces. The result: Students can't share homework answers because ALEKS is assigning completely different questions based on skills and abilities.

Dysleski, who was skeptical until her department tested ALEKS last summer, has seen other benefits as well. "I love that my students are more prepared during lectures," she said. "I love that they're actually doing homework on their own. I love that they're coming to office hours with good questions." Those changes--as well as test scores that rose an unheard-of 10 percentage points in fall 2008 compared to fall 2007, though Dysleski is cautious about attributing the results to ALEKS without more data--all point to the continuing success of the product at CSU. Now, Dysleski is hoping to convince other departments to consider using ALEKS as well.

One of Dysleski's favorite benefits is that ALEKS forces beginning college students to develop solid study skills. Students can't procrastinate, cramming all of their study into Sunday night, for example, because they don't know how many problems ALEKS will require them to answer during each session. While that feature tends to drive students crazy, Dysleski sees it as realistic--"It sends a nice message. Not only is it a terrible idea to procrastinate, but yes, you have to study until you understand the concepts."

And that points to a challenge with ALEKS, Dysleski cautioned--convincing students that the time they spend with the software is valuable. "I'll get comments throughout the semester that ALEKS is a huge pain," Dysleski said. But what students dislike most, Dysleski loves--that the software periodically pops up with an assessment of a student's understanding, then either lets them jump ahead or pushes them back for more study.

She works diligently to counter complaints by pointing out that it's all part of the learning experience. "If you don't know how to do something, [ALEKS] should take you back.... I see it as a learning tool for study habits. Once we have that discussion, they admit, you're right.... In the end, students say, 'ALEKS was a pain, but it helped me learn.' " Because of student resistance, Dysleski suggested implementing the program across all sections of a course offering so that students can't simply opt out of taking the course using ALEKS.

Dysleski was skeptical of the program initially because the department had tried other online products--principally those supplied by textbook companies to accompany their products--without success. Unlike ALEKS, those programs simply assigned the same homework questions to the entire class.

With textbook-supplied software, Dysleski also said she spent lots of time verifying that answers were correct. In contrast, she's found the quality of ALEKS content consistently high. And that's another plus about it, she said. "The problems are not just algorithmic.... They're very conceptual. You actually have to type in chemical compounds. You might have to fill in a table that has eight entries." Also, she said, rather than getting questions with randomly generated new numbers to make them slightly different, students consistently see completely different questions, even on the same topic.

That sort of tutorial process ensures that students can't just memorize the correct answer, she said, because the next question will be completely different. ALEKS also typically requires correct answers to several questions per topic, making sure that a student has thoroughly mastered an area before moving on.

As an assistant professor, Dysleski teaches two 250-student intro courses each semester. The sheer volume, she said, makes it impossible for her to reach out to students the way they may expect based on high school experience. The size of many first-year classes, as well as the necessity for good study habits to stay apace of the subject matter, can leave students behind--especially those who are marginally prepared. Dysleski suggested that her B- and C-level chemistry students have perhaps been helped most by ALEKS because of its demand for regular study and a solid understanding of each progressive concept.

ALEKS can be tailored to fit various curricula: The CSU general chemistry course, for example, is taught in a different order than most institutions. That hasn't presented a problem because ALEKS has allowed the department to select and order the topics they want covered so that homework assignments match lectures. ALEKS products for higher education include basic mathematics through pre-calculus, business math, accounting, and statistics courses.

Meanwhile, Dysleski said she's more than pleased with the changes she's seeing in class. "In lectures, it feels as if students are participating more. They're yelling out answers more than in the past. They come to office hours more with prepared questions. I really believe that it's because they are spending time with ALEKS."

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