Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Review of ALEKS

We've all heard of writer's block, but is there such a thing a mathematician's block? Having a math-phobic daughter, I can assure you that it really exists. When it comes to math lessons, she seems to freeze up, despite high ability. She's decided she isn't good at math, though working above grade level. Her perception is somewhat self-fulfilling, making time spent doing math a struggle in our household. We've tried many different math programs, from core to supplement to fun software to straightforward textbooks, in my quest to find torture-free math instruction. I've used ALEKS in the past and was happy to revisit is again for this review.

ALEKS is a web-based service that utilizes artificial intelligence for comprehensive math instruction for grades 3-12. It is designed for independent math learning with tracking for the parent or school teacher. All instruction and work is done completely online using the ALEKS software. No additional materials are needed.

The registration process is easy. Parents are given a master account to oversee the progress of their student(s). Once your child's account is established, the parent assigns a starting course, which can be changed at any time. With the student's first login, they will be given an assessment of their knowledge of the material for that course. Students will not be asked to repeat information they have already mastered in the course and will be given a starting point specific to them. After the initial assessment, if it's discovered the course selected is too difficult or too easy, a reassessment for a different course can be assigned.

One of the unique features of ALEKS is the use of a pie chart. Each course is divided into components, e.g. whole numbers, fractions, geometry, and visually represented in a colorful pie chart.

Students have the freedom to choose what portion of the pie they'd like to work on with a simple click. Each slice is filled in as they've mastered the concepts. If material from other areas need to be learned before continuing on in a particular slice, the software will not allow further work until the child masters the necessary skills in other slices.

ALEKS is not a drill and kill program. Each new concept is presented with a short explanation and practice problem. There is an option to get further explanation if needed. After the practice problem, children work on like problems until 2-3 consecutive problems are answered correctly. At this point, a portion of the pie is earned and a new concept is introduced. Accelerated learners will appreciate the opportunity to move forward quickly. There is no need to worry about retention. ALEKS will later reassess to be sure the concepts are mastered. Automatic assessments occur whenever the student has added 20 new items to the pie, or if 10 hours in ALEKS have passed without an assessment. If it is found that the student did not retain the information, students lose that portion of the slice and need to earn it again. This was one of my favorite features!

Answers are inputed directly; there is no multiple choice. If you are the type that requires your children to show each step of the problem, you may not like the fact that students are required to just have a correct final answer to progress. However, incorrect answers will force the student to review their own written work. Both of my children have learned the hard way that sloppiness will require reworking the complete problem because they can't decipher their own work.

ALEKS will automatically email the parent a report of the student's progress. A quick look at the History portion of the report will reveal the the hours spent working, the number of items learned per hour and the progression made. This will indicate whether or not the child's time is spent productively on ALEKS. The printable report will also show the current pie and portions completed, concepts learned, concepts ready to be learned and more.

As mentioned earlier, ALEKS has been used in our household prior to this review. The first time we utilized ALEKS was a couple of years ago at the height of the math drama in our household. My daughter, 9 at the time, was convinced that either her mother or the math book was wrong and spent more time arguing or crying about doing math than actually doing it. Being ahead in math but developmentally not ready to move forward, I gave us both a break by setting her up with ALEKS for a full year to solidify concepts already introduced. It was money well spent.

Probably our greatest benefit was ALEKS forced my daughter to work and learn math independently while "saving face" when she had an incorrect problem. It was just her and the computer, which would not respond to her crawling under the table and crying. Offense was not taken if the computer told her the problem was incorrect nor could she argue with the computer.

The pie was rather motivating to her, which surprised me some. When she lost part of her pie during an automatic assessment, it motivated her to earn back that portion of the slice in the same session. Having work completed visually represented with a filled in slice was encouraging.

Because the students are assessed and not forced to repeat concepts they already know, I've also used ALEKS as a supplement or a break from whatever math program we are using. When doing this, my daughter has easily shifted to ALEKS for a few months. For her revisit for this review, I selected a topic we were already studying. She was able to review material and learned some completely new concepts as well.

My 9-year-old son is a very different math student, but he also seemed to like ALEKS during his time using it for this review. Being a child that hates to write and prefers mental math, he really appreciated not having to show work or even write answers. On occasion he seemed to tire of reading the explanations of how to work the problem and would miss important instruction. When this happened it didn't take much explanation on my part to get him back on track. He mostly worked independently. Overall, it seemed to be an effective program for him as well.

A subscription to ALEKS is
  • $19.95 per student, per month, or

  • $99.95 every 6 months, or

  • $179.95 every 12 months.
Family discounts are also offered. When compared to other web-based math programs, ALEKS comes at a very reasonable price and is just a fraction of the cost of tutors.

A 48-hour trial is offered on the website, but clicking on the link below will give new users access to a full 1-month free trial.

The ALEKS website contains tutorials, course lists, and FAQs for more information.

If you were looking to permanently outsource your math instruction, this would be an excellent choice and much cheaper than other options. It works wonders as a supplement or temporary core curriculum for times when your child (or you!) needs something different. Independent and accelerated learners will thrive with this program. Based on our own experience, I'd say it is effective with strong-willed students too. In general, students needing detailed instruction or that crave interaction with others may need other long-term choices, but ALEKS may be an effective short-term supplement.

I would love to have ALEKS as a permanent resource in our homeschool, but our budget doesn't allow use of it as our core curriculum on a permanent basis. It has been a great tool for our family as a supplement or core curriculum on a semi-permanent basis. Definitely take advantage of the trial offer if you think ALEKS may be a good resource for your family.

Read what others thought about this program by visiting the TOS Homeschool Crew's Official Blog.

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