There’s a new rite of passage for students who are accepted into the College of Natural Sciences. It involves a piece of artificial intelligence software called ALEKS (for Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces).
Beginning this year, all students who commit to entering the College of Natural Sciences are required, a few months before their first semester begins, to take the ALEKS assessment exam in calculus. The $4 fee is paid by the college, and if students score a 70 percent or higher on the roughly hour-long test, then they’re allowed to enroll in Math 408K; with an 80, they may enroll on M408C. The courses are co-requisites for the college’s degree plans.
For the students who score under 70 percent, ALEKS offers a sophisticated online learning environment to assist them in getting their scores up. They can take the test as many times as they want over the summer, and if their scores rise to 50 percent, they can place out of the Foundations of Mathematics course into pre-calculus. If they get up to 70 percent, they can enroll in calculus.
“In the past, if our students didn’t score high enough on the placement exam, they were basically on their own,” says David Laude, associate dean for undergraduate education. “With ALEKS, by contrast, they’ll have these artificial intelligence algorithms creating tailored curricula. It’s very guided and very efficient. It really puts the power in the hands of the students. If they want to spend the time to bring up their scores, they’ll be able to. There’s even a nifty pie chart that tracks your progress as you go along. You can sit there and watch your score climb.”
Unlike the SAT II achievement test in math, which was the previous means used by the college to determine math readiness, ALEKS doesn’t simply ask a battery of static questions and spit out a single number. Created by a team of software engineers, mathematicians, and cognitive scientists from New York University and UC-Irvine, the software tailors each question to how students answered all the previous questions.
Over the course of the assessment exam, ALEKS constructs a detailed analysis of students’ strengths and weaknesses, and of their preparedness for the particular content that they’ll be studying in their University of Texas at Austin math and science courses. That profile then becomes the starting point for students to take advantage of the educational component of ALEKS.
The college is supporting ALEKS by having its advisers act as coaches and mentors for incoming students hoping to improve their scores. Every single student who decides to make use of ALEKS will be assigned an advisor, and the advisors will be able to track the progress of their students, touch base with them every week, and offer suggestions and encouragement (and perhaps a little gentle pressure).
“There are students who really need the Foundations of Mathematics course, or who are ready for pre-calculus but not calculus,” says Sean Smith, who’s coordinating ALEKS for the advising center, “and they should take those courses. We have great instructors for them. But there are also a lot of students who didn’t take the test in the right frame of mind, and who, with a bit of preparation, could succeed in a higher-level course. At orientation, we asked the students who didn’t score well, ‘How many of you took it late at night, or while watching TV, or while rushing to do something else?’ Of the people who scored below 50 percent, about three quarters of them raised their hand.”
In addition to its role in math placement, ALEKS will also be integrated, starting this year, directly into the introductory chemistry lectures. Students will automatically get three points of their final grade simply for taking the chemistry assessment exam, and they’ll get an additional two points if they can get their score up to 70 during the semester. This should provide a very targeted way, says Laude, to make sure that students are up to speed on the chemistry basics that they probably learned in high school but have since forgotten. It will also be a nice test run for the system, which will likely be used in other introductory courses as the college, and individual instructors, learn to use it more and more effectively.
“Everybody out there has an idea of what college readiness means,” says Laude, “but it’s idea of what it means to be ready that’s the most important by far. Now we have a means of giving our incoming students the benefit of what we know about our own classes and majors.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Insight.