The final area that is having an impact on the education landscape involves a term that is most often associated with manufacturing. Called “just-in-time teaching,” it is a strategy that involves web- or technology-based assignments given just prior to the classroom instruction. Feedback from those assignments are then given to the teacher, who adjusts the lesson according to the readiness of the students in the class.

Maria Terell, a professor of mathematics at Cornell University, has experimented with this strategy as part of her GoodQuestions project. The goal of the project has been to develop a more active learning environment in the classroom by having a better sense of where students are at prior to entering class. Such an approach has promise for increasing interest and mastery.

At Marshall, we have been experimenting with a different technological approach in our mathematics classes, but the underlying concept is similar … use out of class time to better assess where students are at and deliver instruction that is most appropriate to their level.

Our tool has been something called ALEKS.

In the 1920s, psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed this particular space the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), defined as the difference between an individual’s ability to solve a problem alone or under the guidance of an adult or peers. By pitching instruction right at the edge of this zone, students would be guided, ever increasingly, towards more and more independent learning. One metaphor that emerged from this theory was the concept of “scaffolded learning.” Over time, a skilled instructor adjusts her lessons to fit the changing performance of the student.

ALEKS was developed in the early 1990s through funding from the National Science Foundation as a result of ground-breaking research in mathematical cognitive science from professors at New York University, the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Brussels.

This mathematical software uses complex Knowledge Space Theory to efficiently and accurately assess a student’s current knowledge and adapt the program’s questions to fit the exact topics or areas that a student is ready to master next.

The program is currently being used by millions of students ranging in ages from the elementary years to the college level.

At Marshall, our 6th grade math teacher has had all students assessed using ALEKS and has been presented with a detailed inventory of her individual students’ readiness. This powerful new tool enables her to individualize math instruction. Rather than presenting the same lesson to all students (when some have already mastered the topic), she can take the opportunity to present a lesson to one group of students while allowing the others to continue their work independently in ALEKS. Later in the unit, she then addresses the needs of those higher performing students in small group sessions while providing other more appropriate learning opportunities for the students still mastering the main concepts of the unit.

In addition to maximizing the use of class instructional time, this technology has been proven to greatly increase both individual and overall cohort performance in mathematics. Marshall’s 6th grade math teacher notes, “ALEKS is the ultimate math tool for differentiation.  Students love it because they can choose what they want to learn and the immediate feedback is rewarding.  As a teacher, I feel more confident that all of my students will be challenged at their individual learning level.”

The benefits of this tool can show up in test scores as well. At a previous school, I tracked four years of student achievement in our standard Grade 8 math classroom (pre-algebra) on a nationally normed 8th grade math test. The charts below reflect a class curve, with the left side starting at the 10th percentile (nationally) and the right ending at the 100th percentile.

The first two charts are the top are two consecutive years of testing, using a traditional method of textbook-based instruction. The bottom charts are test results after incorporating ALEKS. As you can see, the students at the lower end of the performance scale virtually disappear. Using ALEKS enabled the teacher to identify and address specific issues for students – and their performance drastically increased.