Here's something I recently posted to a couple of homeschooling mailing lists.

This is a bit scrolly, but please bear with me if you have any interest in having your kids learn math. Executive summary: ALEKS is not a good thing for learning. Nice support for tracking.

Recently somebody posted a link for a free one month trial of ALEKS for new users (

http://www.aleks.com/webform/pr-87 which still works so try it out). I signed up and had my DS12 (who is a DYS) and DD11 give it a try. He has already done all the Art of Problem Solving Introduction books (Algebra, Counting & Probability, Number Theory, Geometry), and is starting to look at AoPS Intermediate Algebra. For Counting & Probability he took the AoPS class, but the others he did from the books. His strongest subject is math. My daughter is completely different. She has no particular love of math, but has always done very well in public elementary school classes and seems to me to show reasonable understanding of what she has learned. She has not yet even looked at Algebra.

My son tried the ALEKS pre-calculus class. In the initial assessment it found that he had already mastered 161 out of 265 topics. He then spent about thirteen hours over the next three days, completely self-driven, followed by an assessment that showed mastery of 210 topics. I think he could have finished it in another four days if he had wanted to. Here is what he writes about the program.

------------------------------------------------------

I think that ALEKS is not the kind of learning that's right for someone like me. When I learn something new, I want to learn the reason why it's true, not just be told that log(b)/log(a)=loga(b), but to be shown a simple proof of this formula. ALEKS is probably good for the same people that a normal math textbook is good for. The two are similar in many ways. A regular textbook will present a method for solving a specific type of problem or show how to use a formula without explaining why it works, and then have you practice it by applying it to problems that are essentially the same as the example where it was first demonstrated. When a formula is proved in ALEKS, you don't get a chance to prove it for yourself, and the proof given will therefore be harder to retain and the strategy for deriving it, which could be useful elsewhere, is also lost. The books that I use to learn math, from Art of Problem Solving, have you prove almost all of the formulas, and only give you without proof the ones that are considered too difficult to prove. In the AoPS books, you don't practice a technique for a specific type of problem over and over on the same problem with different constants, but have you apply them in different situations in different ways, which helps with knowing where and when to use specific formulas or techniques, and with general problem solving strategy. This works for me because I learn how to do math, rather than how to apply a specific formula to a very specific problem type. I think that ALEKS will work for those people who want to learn to apply a formula, and to do well in school, but not those who want to learn to do mathematics.

------------------------------------------------------

His time with ALEKS was punctuated with a variety of colorful language directed at the computer. He explained that the stupid program was not letting him get past something he knew before having show he knew it several times with slight, irrelevant variations. He also complained that it wouldn't admit he knew something when he made small calculation errors despite doing the right thing. As he insisted in doing all the work in his head, he did make some calculation errors. He also said some of their answers were wrong. I don't doubt him, but I didn't check. I suspect they were just a bit sloppy in how they stated things.

My daughter, on the other hand, sailed along just fine on the stuff she mostly knew (Middle School Math Course 1 & 3). We started her with the Middle School Math Course 1, then switched to Course 3 when she said it was boring, then switched to Pre-Algebra when she wanted something more advanced. She got busy with other things and didn't do much of anything on the Pre-Algebra course before the month expired. She thought the experience was okay, and believes she learned something. She seemed to like working on geometry topics most. She also complained that there was nothing about "why" to go along with the "how" instruction.

My take is that ALEKS is not very useful for mathy kids, and not great for others. The tracking stuff is wonderful for a parent/teacher -- you can see exactly what they do with daily granularity, e.g. the numbers I provided above for my son's progress. If you're concerned about holes, they have their breakdown of all the minutiae to compare against at any moment, including state standards. If you want to avoid any involvement, it makes the whole thing quite easy to deal with. But I have to agree with my son that it doesn't teach math any better than the typical school textbook, which means hardly at all. It doesn't make the student actually think.

Here's an exchange with my daughter, approximated from memory:

- What were you learning about in ALEKS today?

- The circumference of a circle.

- So you learned the formula?

- Yes.

- Hmm. So what would happen to the circumference if I doubled the radius?

- The radius?

- Yes. Did you learn what the radius is?

- Of course I know what the radius is. The formula uses the diameter.

- So how does that relate to the radius?

- It's twice as big.

- Okay, so can you tell me the formula in terms of the radius?

- They didn't do that.

- Can you figure it out?

- They didn't use the radius.

- I know, but I think you can figure it out.

- (whining) pi r two

- That's right. Although we usually put the constants in front, so it's said "two pi r".

- Got it.

- So if the radius is doubled, what happens to the diameter?

- (grumbling) Doubles.

- And what does that mean happens to the circumference?

- (more whining)

- I'm trying to figure out whether ALEKS is a useful way for you to learn these things, so please humor me.

- (more whining) (long pause to think) It doubles?

- Why?

- (paraphrased and condensed) Because it's multiplication and when you double a factor the result doubles.

Okay, so she knows it if she stops and takes the time to think, but ALEKS is not promoting that. Treating math as a bunch of unrelated facts is (in my opinion) just a waste of time.

I can see where an ALEKS free trial is a useful thing for figuring out where a student stands. Do the assessment and note what they don't know yet. Then find some useful way to learn it. I'm thinking of trying that for Geometry with DD14, who took a standard high school geometry course last year and, I suspect, learned little. I'm wondering if I'll see that from the assessment.

For kids who get math, stay away from ALEKS. Go AoPS all the way. Great stuff.

Now if somebody can suggest a good way for my son to learn that paragraphs really do matter for writing, that would be a wonderful thing. That short bit he wrote above took a week of whining (on my part) to get out of him -- very frustrating. (Do you think you could edit this to have paragraphs? Why? It would be easier for a reader to understand. So?)

Regards,

Jon