ALEKS (short for Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces) entered our lives last winter. My older son and I had the Precalculus blues. I was frustrated with him, he was frustrated with me, and we were both frustrated with his textbook. My older son is a mathematically talented kid with (at that time) little drive to spend more than a few minutes solving a problem. He thrived on Harold Jacobs’ books for Algebra and Geometry, which were interrupted by over a year of Algebra II via Thinkwell. (No offense, Dr, Burger, but you’re too entertaining to teach my son, at least at age 11 and 12, Algebra II/College Algebra. He remembered the jokes but not the math.) Sprinkle in Very Challenging Life Circumstances that year, and it can be safely said that much of Algebra II didn’t happen. Enter Precalculus, a course, like Prealgebra, doesn’t really exist as a subject, unless it includes Trigonometry (our plans did) and a recap on that missed Algebra II that fell apart for too many reasons.

We moved through Foerster’s Precalculus at a decent clip, finishing trigonometry and starting on the myriad of other topics that make up the nebulous Precalculus. Somewhere after trig he lost his way, probably in part because I lost mine. So, on the advice of a friend, we tried ALEKS.

ALEKS offers dozens of math classes with a smattering of accounting and chemistry courses. We’ve tried only Precalculus and Chemistry. (He was already taking Chemistry from me, so we thought we’d see what it added. We lasted two months, with little use.) ALEKS begins with mid-elementary level mathematics and works up with there, stopping with Precalculus and Statistics. For $20 a month, a user as full access to a single course, although one is free to change what that course is at any time. The learner begins with an assessment test, which can be quite long, to determine what is already mastered. After that, a “pie” is formed, with wedges representing topics to master. The learner is free to choose from different wedges for new learning material (this is not a strictly linear program) but only if the learner has the skills to learn it previously mastered. (One can’t attempt sinusoids before knowing basic trig functions, for example.) There is always plenty from which to choose.

Upon picking a topic to learn (and there are a whopping 447 in Precalculus), the learner is presented with a problem. The first section on Limits and Continuity is shown below for reference:

Since my learner has no previous knowledge of limits, he’d select the light green button on the bottom right labeled *explain*. The next screen explains the problem and the concept in words and diagrams. (There is no auditory or video component.) The next option is to try another problem. The explain button is always available, with similar general information and problem-specific information, and once the learner successfully answers three consecutive problems, a new topic is available. The steps from one problem type to the next are generally small, but at this level of math, mastering each step can take a fair amount of time.

Assessments pop up periodically, containing any material previously mastered and plenty of material not yet covered. Correct answers on these assessments, of either old or new material, adds to the darkened portion of the pie pieces and increases the percentage mastered. Answering incorrectly sets one back. The teacher or parent administrating the account can request an assessment any time, which can bump a learner further along the pie (or further back). Teachers/parents can produce quizzes on the recent topics learned or any topics, but these quizzes do not affect the pie and mastery percentages. The only written option is the worksheet button on the student’s page, which allows a learner to create a printable sheet of problems. Again, the results of these don’t affect the mastery levels in the program.

ALEKS costs $20 per month per user per course (and given the way appropriate problems are generated, two users on a course is impossible), with discounts for multiple courses or prepayment of a greater time period than one month. In my never-ending optimism that Precalculus will not last forever, I pay monthly. I’m sure the ALEKS folks appreciate this enduring yet unfounded feeling and the extra money it generates for them.

So what do we like? I like that I’ve been taken out of the Precalculus equation. For some reason, the topics seem unfamiliar to me, while actual Calculus still holds a spot in my brain. Go figure. More than that, it puts the pace of learning into my son’s hands while assuring that he doesn’t leave material until he’s mastered it. (Yeah, with homeschooling that should be a given. For whatever reason, we were struggling with pacing and mastery in this domain.) There seems to be no end to the problems the program generates, and moving ahead is impossible until you’ve mastered the topics before. That said, at all times there are many topics from which to choose. This allows a variety of study from day-to-day not easily achieved with most text books.

The list of what we don’t like is a bit longer. The user interface is clunky. A parent can set the frequency which one will receive reports on attendance and mastery, but, at least for us and another family we know (who have used a level elementary math), the amount of time ALEKS records the child being in session doesn’t jibe with the child’s time in front of the computer. Specifically, the report vastly under-reports the time the user was on the program. This led to many painful confrontations about time use until I came to understand (thanks to a parent friend) the inconsistency they’d also experienced. Even the number of topics mastered on the report doesn’t jibe with my son’s experience. I’ve yet to figure this out, but I do know I’m not alone in this frustration.

Second, written examples and instructions just don’t cut it all the time. While for some learners, it may be sufficient, it’s just not for my son. While he is highly mathematically talented, he’s not mathematically interested and disengages rather easily with this format. I’ve encouraged him to seek Khan Academy lectures and even dear old mom for support when needed. Despite this pitfall, he’d still rather do ALEKS than return to the textbook and mom.

Third, the response system (the way a student answers questions) encourages precision but not process. There is no partial credit on ALEKS. Sure, this may seem like a good deal, but ALEKS doesn’t encourage a learner to show his/her work. I’ve worked long and hard to convince my older son that showing his work allows him to go back and check his own work and find mistakes. I started giving partial credit in Algebra precisely to encourage him to think on paper. I’m hoping I’ve not undone that by using ALEKS. The precision vs showing work is a trade-off, and had he been earlier in his mathematical education, I’d likely have switched programs (or majorly supplemented) to assure showing work was a learned skill.

My final recommendation would be to use ALEKS on its own as a bridge, as we are now, to deal with a rough spot in mathematical learning. I’ve heard from many a family who used it to break through a learning barrier gain some ground in a particular area or when friction between parent and child on the math front becomes unbearable. It also would serve as a fine supplement to a “live” curriculum. I think math needs to be discussed, and this just doesn’t happen with ALEKS. The price, at least for short-term use, is moderate. For the gifted learner with a few gaps at a level, ALEKS avoids the repetition of mastered material that drives gifted learners nuts while assuring they really do know what they think they know.

Our next stop? We’re likely to meander around a variety of mathematical topics for this school year, but Calculus in a live classroom is our choice for next year. Hopefully, ALEKS will have helped him fill some holes, increase his accuracy, and prepare him for the next step.