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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ALEKS: Customized Math Instruction

ALEKS is a highly-customized, on-line subscription-based math program for 3rd grade and up. It is essentially an electronic textbook, but what makes it really unique is the attention to assessment, the opportunity for review and the detailed progress reports that are available to you, the parent. ALEKS recently asked me to take it for a 1-month test-drive with my 8-year-old son, David. Be sure to read the whole review to find out how you can get a FREE one-month trial.

The first thing that impressed me about ALEKS is the pre-assessment test given to the student prior to starting the program. You start with a registration process where you give very basic information including your child's grade level. Within 24 hours of registering, you will receive a link via email to set up your account and then your child will take a lengthy assessment test to determine exactly what he does or does not know in the math concepts for that level. There's no pressure here, it is not a timed test and if your child needs to stop at any time, he can come back to it and pick up where he left off. If he gets a question for a concept he's never encountered, he simply clicks the "haven't learned this yet" button. After the assessment, you can access a report in your "master" account which will show you which concepts your child has mastered, which he needs to work on and which he needs to learn. Throughout your child's use of the program you can access his current progress. Here is a screen shot of one of the master account screens (note: the screenshots come from the ALEKS website):

This shot shows you a pie chart similar to the one that will appear in your master account. Notice how the different concepts are divided into different categories and you are shown how many topics in each category have been mastered. The rest of the progress report will list the particular topics your child has tried and whether they have been or probably have been mastered. Through your master account, you can request a new assessment at any time to see if these topics have actually been mastered or if further review is needed.

The screen shot below shows the pie chart that appears in the students account. Whenever your child accesses his account, he will first be given a screen that lists for review any topics he covered in the previous session. To access new topics, he can click on the "My Pie" tab. There is also a "Review" tab if he wishes to review other topics already covered.

To choose a topic from the "Pie," your child rolls his cursor over a section of the pie to see what topics are available there. As topics are mastered, new topics become available to learn and practice. Everything is built onto something else and your child will not be given a topic that he can't learn due to lack of previous knowledge.

Once your child selects a topic to learn, he'll be taken to a lesson/practice screen. Typically, a problem will be given. If he thinks he already knows how to solve the problem, he can click "practice" and try it. If he needs to learn more, he can click on the "explain" button or on any of the terms to get a definition. You'll notice the "Dictionary" tab at the top of the screen. Your child can use this to look up any unfamiliar terms.

Once the problem is solved, the child clicks "Next" and the program evaluates his answer. If the answer is correct, he can move on to the next practice problem. If his answer is incorrect, he may get a suggestion as to why it is incorrect, but he will need to reread the explanation and do some independent problem-solving to ensure that he answers it correctly this time. The program will not give him the answer, he does need to figure it out himself.

The number of practice problems given per topic depends upon how well your child does with the topic: if he has no difficulties, there will only be a few problems and then he will be asked if he wants to try another topic. If he does have difficulties, he will get new practice problems until it seems that he understands the concept thoroughly. He also has the option of printing out worksheets to work on the concept some more with paper and pencil.

In addition to the main program, QuickTables is included an ALEKS subscription. Quicktables is ALEKS answer to drilling the facts tables. The idea is that, with practice, your child will become more and more proficient at typing in the answers using the computer number pad. He first needs to get through the preliminary exercises in Quicktables which primarily consist of typing in numbers flashed on the screen as quickly as possible. If he can't to it instanteously, he'll have to do it again and again...David never actually got to use the "tables" part of this function because he just could not type in those numbers fast enough. Like many children who are learning to keyboard on a full-sized keyboard with small hands, he hasn't mastered the number pad, yet, so the usability of this function will be limited to your child's keyboard skills.

After using ALEKS for a month, I am still very impressed with master account part of it. You get a very clear picture of what your child is learning and where he needs extra help. I also really appreciate the assessment process that ensures that I know precisely where he is in his math knowledge base.

David liked the program at first but has become frustrated and bored with it. It is not truly an interactive program, or at least it's no more interactive than reading a textbook, answering some problems, having someone grade them problems correct or incorrect and then reading the textbook again to see what you didn't get. The program is set up in such a way that only your final answer gets typed into the computer. Any problems that require other steps your child will have to work out with paper and pencil. Feedback is minimal. Either you get the answer correct, or you get it wrong, and while you may receive a hint, the program will not show you where you went wrong. Was it a simple calculation error or have you misunderstood the concept? You're left to read the explanation of the concept and figure it out on your own.

This approach might work better for the higher grades when students are more independent, but my 3rd grader got frustrated and confused, so Mom read through the explanation with him, explaining it in detail and then helped him find his mistakes. I certainly don't object to helping my child understand the concepts in order to succeed, but somehow I expected a little more help from such an expensive program.

And how much does it cost?
$19.95 per student per month or
$99.95 for six months or
$179.95 for 1 year
See their chart for multiple student discounts here.
The cost of the subscription includes the master account and monthly updates via email on your child's progress.

ALEKS has very generously offered a FREE trial month to my blog readers. If you would like to try out ALEKS for a month for no cost and with no strings attached to see if it just might be right for your family, click this link:
For more information about the program and a tour visit the ALEKS website here.

And if you would like to read reviews of ALEKS by other homeschoolers, click the banner below:

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