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Study: Hybrid Algebra Program 'Nearly Doubled' Math Learning

From guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Students who used a mathematics program that blends online learning and in-class instruction in algebra significantly improved their performance in the subject, finds new study funded by the U.S. Department of Education and carried out by the RAND Corporation and Educational Testing Service.

This two-year study, one of the largest conducted by the Education Department in the last nine years, involved over 17,000 students and 375 teachers from 147 schools in seven states for two years. Six million dollars were dedicated toward the randomized, controlled experiment, which featured Carnegie Learning's Cognitive Tutor Algebra I. The Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences focused on Cognitive Tutor as one of the oldest and most commonly used hybrid-learning curricula in the country.

While the first year showed no significant results, in the second year the students who were taught algebra through the Carnegie Learning program improved their performance by 8 percentile points. Steve Ritter, a founder and the chief scientist of Carnegie Learning, in Pittsburgh, equated the results to a doubling of the amount of math learning a student achieves during a year of high school.

The improvements were similar across students of different ethnic and socioeconomic background, and high, regular, and low initial math ability, Ritter said. The researchers found similar improvements among participating middle school students—higher-performing math students typically take algebra in 8th grade rather than in high school—though the middle school sample was not large enough to show significant effects in the same way as the high school students.

In the United States, only 35 percent of 8th grade students are proficient in math—trailing their counterparts in Korea, Russia, and Finland, among other nations, on international comparisons.

"Many view our international standing as inadequate, so there's been a lot of interest and effort in improvement," said John F. Pane, a senior scientist at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corporation and one of the study's authors.

Beyond Math Drills

The researchers attempted to ensure the results of formal intervention studies would translate into real classroom experience by providing "no special support" to the urban, suburban, and rural schools trying to use the curriculum. "It was implemented in a realistic fashion," Pane said. "When schools implement curricula on their own, it's not always exactly as it is as intended. So, when you judge results in that kind of environment, they're more likely to translate and be usable by other schools around the country."

In the Carnegie Learning tutor program, students typically worked with the software's individualized tutorial program for two days each week and received traditional classroom instruction the other three days. This instruction included group work and problem-solving activities.

More commonly, middle school math students to use computers only for basic drills, according to an analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It found that less than a quarter of students used computers to work with spreadsheets or geometric figures and only 17 percent used statistical programs. The Carnegie program, on the other hand, sidesteps basic drills in favor of a cognitive approach aimed at helping students gain a deeper understanding of concepts.

A federal survey also shows that African-American and low-income students are significantly more likely to use computers for math drills than white students or those from higher-income families.

"There's a lot of investment and experimentation in education technology happening now, and there's not a lot of evidence to guide educators and policymakers on what to do and what are the most effective ways to use it," Pane said.

As more schools look to incorporate technology into the curriculum, researchers said that their findings may be useful in helping those schools determine the kinds of blended-learning programs that might be linked to better learning outcomes before making an investment in them.

Pane said, "Continued support for this kind of research is important so that we have good solid evidence of what programs to adopt."

Sarah D. Sparks contributed to this post.

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