UA Faculty's Math Tutoring System Tested

A Web-based algebra tutoring software program – which has the potential to be used in schools across the nation – that was created by a University of Arizona researcher is being evaluated as part of a new grant-supported project.

Carole Beal, a UA cognitive science professor, is collaborating with WestEd on a four-year grant totaling nearly $2.7 million.

The Institute of Education Sciences, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, provided the funding to WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and development agency, with the UA serving as a subcontractor, receiving $600,000 of the funds.

To be evaluated is Beal's "AnimalWatch" system. The program uses ecological instruction to aid in math learning and also includes multimedia, videos and other resources to help students along as they practice their math.

As part of the project, the program, which has been adapted for use of students who are learning to speak English, will be implemented in three urban school districts in California beginning in September 2010.

"It's a good partnership because we've developed the product and WestEd is known for taking educational intervention and doing the evaluations to see if they work," Beal said.

"Part of the appeal of AnimalWatch is it's connecting learning to the environment and trying to bring in content that covers the nation," Beal said.

"So, part of what we're doing in the program is adding ways to encourage students," she said. "That's how you learn."

The research team is currently identifying 70 teachers to train. The teachers will then begin using the program with their middle school students as a supplement to weekly math instruction.

"This is where the math starts to get a little more abstract and we start to really see achievement differences," Beal said.

Meanwhile, WestEd will evaluate the program's efficacy as students prepare to take the state's standardized exam. Text scores will be used to gauge how effective AnimalWatch is in aiding student learning. The agency also will track the progress of AnimalWatch users against students who are not using the program.

All the while, UA researchers will still provide and maintain Web resources and a staff line where teachers can call with technical questions.

The anticipated outcome is that students will see marked improvement in their test scores, which will support a nationwide implementation of the program, Beal added.

Steve Schneider, director of WestEd's mathematics, science and technology program, is serving as the principal investigator on the grant.

An abstract Schneider wrote about the project noted that algebra "is considered a critical gatekeeper mathematics course for high school graduation and college enrollment, but many students continue to struggle with algebra and failure rates are high."

The problem, Schneider added, is that students often struggle to master computation, fractions and algebra readiness skills.

"One potential way to improve student mathematics achievement and prepare students for algebra may be through the use of intelligent tutoring systems," the proposal continued.

Beal said she and her research staff have conducted three evaluations of the program and have found that it does work.

"Our findings suggest that the program has some promising effects," she said. "If this evaluation is successful with this grant, other states will certainly be interested in using the program."
By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications