Thursday, April 10, 2003

Software helps students build skills

Published in the Current

CEHS math teacher Charlotte Hanna is piloting a computer program being eyed by school district officials as a way to help students who need extra help with specific skills in math and language arts.

As many as 15 percent of CEHS students will need additional help to meet the Maine Learning Results required for high school graduation beginning with the class of 2007. Most of those who will need help in math are students who enter high school either in tutorial math or pre-algebra. This year, those two classes are in one group of about 14 students, Hanna said.

She received a grant from the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation to purchase software and a test-scanning device from the Renaissance Learning Company of Wisconsin.

Rather than being computer-based instruction with students sitting in front of keyboards, the software helps Hanna and special education teacher Ben Raymond, who is also in the classroom, keep track of the students’ individual needs and progress. It also customizes tests and homework.

“It generates individualized sets of problems for the students,” Hanna said. That alone would take hours of human time to create. Grading them is also computerized: A scanner accepts the test forms and gives feedback to students, while simultaneously updating the database with information on what learning objectives each student has mastered.

The problems, while answered on a multiple-choice form, are word problems or regular math problems testing over 200 skills, including place value, multiplication and common factors.

“Everybody’s test is on different stuff,” Hanna said. She can also get a report on every student’s progress, allowing her to work with each student on what he or she needs most. She can see easily if several people need help with the same topic, too. “I can do an individualized (work session) or a small group,” she said.

Students who don’t understand concepts can’t “hide” in her classroom. Each test or homework assignment shows what they know or haven’t yet learned.

The students also like the instant feedback. “When they scan, they get feedback right away,” Hanna said. There was a brief hiccough, after pipes broke in the high school building, soaking the scanner. A replacement took two months to arrive, during which Hanna and Raymond hand-graded and hand-entered the scores.

When they scan their tests, students can see what skills they have mastered, and can track their own progress over time.

It helps these students, some of whom have had trouble staying motivated. “The kids are pretty well focused on their work all the time,” Hanna said.

And beyond the specific skills they are learning, the program’s constant feedback and close monitoring of progress has another payoff. “We’re getting some positive attitudes toward math” in students who have historically ignored the subject, Hanna said.

When students come into the room at the beginning of the class period, they begin asking her questions about their homework, seeking help and wanting to learn. “That’s a wonderful thing,” Hanna said.

Many kids are catching up, getting closer to the proficiency considered normal for their actual grade level. Hanna credits the software for that change, and for some changes in her teaching style.

“I would do a lot more whole-class instruction,” she said. Now, “there’s much more one-on-one and small-group instruction.”

She said the school is planning to purchase additional modules for the software, adding pre-algebra and algebra. The company makes modules from kindergarten level through calculus, she said.

This type of monitoring does not take the instructional role away from a teacher, but offers powerful assistance where teachers are already crunched: test creation and monitoring individual progress.

“This is what the computer is designed to do,” Hanna said.