Computer-Aided Instruction Led to Algebra Gains

By Sean Cavanagh — March 10, 2009 3 min read
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Computer-aided instruction can potentially improve student learning in prealgebra and algebra, partly because the technology gives teachers the ability to tailor instruction to children’s individual needs, a new study says.

The study, which appears in the February issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, found that students using a particular program made gains in mathematics test scores. Those improvements were especially strong for students in large classes and those with high absentee rates.

Computer-assisted instruction “has the potential to significantly enhance student mathematics achievement in middle and high school,” the authors conclude, and could be easier for schools and districts to use than other math interventions.

The study examines one program, called “I Can Learn,” which uses computer software and hardware and includes a classroom-management tool for teachers. The research was released as the federal What Works Clearinghouse gave that prealgebra and algebra program a positive review.

The researchers were Lisa Barrow, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; Lisa Markman, the acting director of the Education Research Section at Princeton University; and Cecilia Elena Rouse, a professor of economics and public affairs who is also at Princeton. Ms. Rouse also has been nominated to serve on President Barack Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers.

They conducted a randomized study of students in three urban districts, some taught with the technology, others without it. The researchers began their study with 3,451 late-middle and early-high school students from 17 schools. They looked at students’ pre- and post-test results in specially designed algebra exams, as well as statewide tests.

Not Cheap

The authors found that student achievement rose significantly for students who used the technology, with somewhat larger gains for students in larger classes. The effect was somewhat smaller on state math tests—not surprising, the authors say, given the relatively small amount of prealgebra and algebra content on those exams. The test-score increases were comparable to those achieved through efforts to reduce class sizes, the authors say. They also say that computer-aided instruction could potentially be cheaper than making classes smaller for districts seeking to raise math achievement, given the cost and difficulty of hiring new math teachers.

Yet the computer-assisted program does carry a significant cost, according to the study. A 30-seat technology lab such as the one used in the study would cost $100,000, the authors estimate, with an additional $150,000 for prealgebra, algebra, and classroom-management software, plus yearly maintenance and training costs.

Given the price tag, adopting the program is not something “a school would do lightly,” said Mark R. Dynarski, the director of the Center for Improving Research Evidence at Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J., research organization.

Mr. Dynarski said the study was of high quality, though he cautioned against overinterpreting its results, given that it examines one particular product. The Mathematica official was the lead researcher on a 2007 federal study that found that no significant difference in standardized-test scores between students who used reading and math software products and those who didn’t. The federal study examined 15 commercial software products, though “I Can Learn” was not among them, Mr. Dynarski noted. (“Major Study on Software Stirs Debate,” April 11, 2007.)

This month, the federal What Works Clearinghouse, which Mr. Dynarski directs, reviewed the research on “I Can Learn” and found that it had “postive effects” on student achievement, The clearinghouse is an online resource overseen by the Institute of Education Sciences designed to vet the research on education programs.

One finding in the new study was not surprising, Mr. Dynarksi said: Students who have struggled academically or missed a lot of class time can benefit from a computerized program that allows them to catch up and make progress at their own pace.

“That’s a power of technology,” Mr. Dynarski said. “That is one of its real strengths.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week


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