Students who think they can’t learn math may be in for a surprise when they tackle homework problems on ASSISTments, an online math learning and assessment tool.
The free program is the brain child of husband and wife Neil and Cristina Heffernan, who created it in collaboration with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where Neil is a computer science professor.
Cristina Heffernan said the idea came about when they were both teaching middle school math in Baltimore. Neil was teaching an Algebra I class and trying to keep track of his students’ progress to make sure they were learning course content and were also prepared for state tests. It occurred to him the data could be more easily collected on the computer, rather than trying to aggregate it from a pile of papers turned in by his students.
The couple developed ASSISTments in 2003, loading in hundreds of math problems that teachers can assign online, in much the same way they would if they were using a math textbook.
In 2019, the Heffernans founded The ASSISTments Foundation to scale up and expand ASSISTments.
Assigning and tracking problems through ASSISTments
Palmina Griffin teaches sixth grade math at Trottier Middle School in Southborough and has been using ASSISTments since 2011.
The program makes it easy to assign math problems and track her students’ progress, she said. Students can also track their own progress.
Math problems are assigned through Google Classroom or Canvas, students solve them on paper, then enter the answer into ASSISTments. Some problems require the student to upload an image of their work or show their work using the drawing pad included with the program, Heffernan said.
A green chip means the student solved the problem correctly on the first try. But students have plenty of opportunities to solve a problem and can even ask for hints. An orange chip lets the teacher know the student may have struggled but eventually solved the problem.
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A magenta chip is assigned to a problem when a student is stuck and asks for the correct answer. The teacher will even be able to see if the student asked for the answer before giving the problem a try or if the student really struggled to find the answer.
A student cannot move to the next problem until they insert the correct answer.
Data from ASSISTments helps drive instruction
ASSISTments eliminates the need for teachers to have to score each individual piece of homework by generating a report on each student’s progress and one for the entire class. The teacher then knows what problems need to be gone over again and what students might need extra help, Heffernan said.
“Having the ASSISTment platform and the data allows me as an educator to reflect continuously on my students’ progress and meet the individual needs of all my students. That is not something that can occur without the platform such as ASSISTments,” Griffin said.
Heffernan said they encourage teachers to project the data on a screen — eliminating students’ names — so the entire class can analyze their progress and discuss it. This can provide an extra boost to the student who will immediately be able to see they might not have been the only one to struggle with a problem.
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“Students can see the data but they don’t know whose data it is. They can see if everyone got it right, or how many attempts it took kids to get it. We want students to keep trying and ultimately get to their full understanding by taking educational risks,” Griffin said.
In Griffin’s classroom, students discuss ways they might have arrived at the correct answer.
“It gives us an opportunity to talk about strategies we use to understand the concept,” Griffin said.
ASSISTments can take the stress out of tests
A math teacher at Frederick Hartnett Middle School in Blackstone, Linda Dansereau has used ASSISTments for many years with her seventh graders.
It was particularly helpful this year when students had to take the MCAS tests, after not taking them for a few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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For two weeks she reviewed math problems, using old MCAS tests on the ASSISTments program, assigning four to five problems each day.
“So those warm-ups each day helped them not be fearful of the test,” Dansereau said. “They learned test-taking strategies, like how to eliminate answers. When it came to the test they were very comfortable with it because they had seen it for two weeks before.”
It is also a time saver, because instead of grading math assignments she can analyze the results.
“I can go in and I can look for specific skills and see what problems are there,” she said.
Data from ASSISTments helps teachers and students
Griffin said she still grades at least 100 assignments on paper every night.
“I do this because I value data. I want to have that pulse on how my students are performing academically,” she said.
She relies on ASSISTments to aggregate the data.
“It’s really and truly been time that teachers don’t have. You can’t ever put enough time into analyzing data. Data is the pulse of your classroom and if you don’t have your thumb on that data you don’t know how to drive that instruction. It’s invaluable. It’s probably saved years of my life as an educator to not be trying to individually aggregate all of the data in all of my classrooms,” Griffin said.
Seeing the data also helps her students understand that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
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“They really learn to accept one another as individuals and grow as mathematicians. It helps them feel safe and encouraged to take those risks that I don’t think would occur naturally in a classroom if that growth mindset environment wasn’t cultivated. And we always joke that mistakes are expected, respected, inspected and corrected. And that comes through being able to look at the data instantaneously,” Griffin said.