Algebra assistance at the ready for first-year York undergrad students

Robert McKeown

Robert McKeown

First-year economics majors at York have a new study buddy to help them with the algebra that is foundational to their future success: an artificial intelligence (AI) math tutor named ALEKS. It’s a resource that Robert McKeown would love to see spread across the university.

“Incoming undergraduates often struggle with university math and a common reason is lack of a strong foundation in algebra,” said McKeown, an assistant professor of economics in the teaching stream. “Relatively simple concepts like dividing fractions and basic word problems can leave learners frustrated and present a barrier to mastering more advanced concepts.”

McKeown and teaching stream colleague Karen Bernhardt-Walther are currently combining the best of traditional teaching and online technology with the help of ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces), a web-based learning environment with an artificial intelligence (AI) that adapts questions to the individual learner. With ALEKS’ assistance – and the aid of PhD candidate Mauri Hall, their research assistant – the two faculty members are working to help students in ECON1530, Introductory Math for Economics, improve their algebra skills.

Karen Bernhardt-Walther

Karen Bernhardt-Walther

“ALEKS can give students something that is almost impossible in a large classroom – personalized feedback to students,” said McKeown, the lead for this Academic Innovation Fund project. “Students can figure out what they don’t know and where they need help.”

Added Hall, “It provides us with a way to address individual student needs irrespective of class size,” a definite boon in a large first-year class.

To understand how ALEKS works, imagine you are an undergraduate student in your first year of study. You know that basic math can be a problem for you, but you don't know exactly which topics are of concern. You log into ALEKS for the first time; it asks you to solve a problem. If your answer is correct, your next problem is more advanced. If your answer is wrong, you receive an easier one. This process continues until the AI can diagnose your current knowledge state. Using this process, ALEKS takes fewer than 30 questions – about 90 minutes – to evaluate your level of comprehension.

Once ALEKS assesses a student’s level of knowledge, it creates a learning path to help them improve their skills and knowledge. Students can work at their own pace on the problems assigned by ALEKS. This AI tutor shows you how to reach the solution and provides explanations about how to achieve that solution. There is no pressure and no judgment – just a tutoring tool to assist the students.

Mauri Hall

Mauri Hall

“That tutoring is effective is perhaps not surprising,” said McKeown. “After all, the ancient Greeks knew its potential. Aristotle was hired to tutor the famous Prince Alexander of Macedon and helped him earn his title ‘The Great.’

“Unfortunately, one-on-one tutoring comes with a hefty price tag. A math tutor in the GTA can command upwards of $75 an hour depending on their educational degree and ability. At that rate, two hours a week could cost $1,800 per semester. By comparison, ALEKS costs students just $39 for a six-week subscription.”

ALEKS arrived on the York University scene in the summer of 2020. McKeown first heard about the study aid at an economics conference and did some research into its benefits before first introducing it into a summer math program he was running for incoming economics students.

McKeown was pleased with the outcome, so he and Bernhardt-Walther incorporated a month of work with ALEKS into their Fall 2020 ECON1530 classes. They used ALEKS to review the important algebra foundations of calculus. For students, this meant using ALEKS for homework, quizzes and a term test.

In addition, each of the students completed a pre-course and post-course survey. Student feedback about ALEKS was extremely positive. Students reported that ALEKS increased their confidence, their understanding of math, and even their likelihood of remaining in a math-based discipline. They also liked the immediate feedback the AI tutor provided.

“It really helped our students who had a break between their last math class and coming to York,” said Bernhardt-Walther.

Although McKeown first introduced ALEKS as part of an in-person course, the move to remote course delivery didn’t affect his plans to incorporate it into his ECON1530 syllabus. About 550 economics students have already benefited from having an online tutor, and more are being exposed to the AI assistant this term; in fact, McKeown and Bernhardt-Walther have added additional concepts and problems to ALEKS’ range.

While people often raise concerns about built-in biases when using AI, McKeown says this isn’t an issue for a subject like math where quantitative answers are unambiguously right or wrong.

He strongly believes ALEKS could benefit many more York students. “The ALEKS AI is a unique tool that complements a traditional course,” he said. “The individualized feedback it gives our students is unlike anything else out there.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer

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