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ASU creates unique math-support curriculum to boost proficiency

AI-enabled tutoring is for middle school, high school, college math

Hands tpying on a laptop.
October 06, 2023

Arizona State University has created a new and unique kind of math support for students from middle school pre-algebra through college calculus to address the crisis of math illiteracy.

The new Math and Computer Science Curriculum, or MACS Curriculum, is a combination of technology, teacher support and content. Students follow AI-enabled adaptive courseware and diagnostic tools that create personalized lessons — all meant to build confidence and reduce math anxiety.

Also important is that the intervention generates a data dashboard on each student — and the entire class — so the teacher can tailor lessons if needed.

The MACS Curriculum, with content created by ASU Prep, has completed a pilot in eighth-grade algebra and is now being used in several middle schools. A pilot of the higher education model, with content created by faculty, will begin this month for ASU Online students in business calculus and calculus for engineers.

The intervention, with a series of modules, is designed to be used in different modalities: in person; synchronous online, such as Zoom; asynchronous online, like in ASU Online; and hybrid setups.

The new kind of support system is important because poor math proficiency remains an obstacle to high school graduation, college persistence and entrance into STEM careers, which are vital to national security and the growth of the economy. Proficiency gaps are even larger for underrepresented groups.

The approach is to support students in real time as they learn by doing, according to Bethany Weigele, chief innovation officer for EdPlus at ASU, who leads the team that created the intervention.

“President Crow gave us the challenge to end math illiteracy at scale,” said Weigele, a former middle school math and science teacher and tutor.

“We assembled the best differentiator of technology, grabbed our ASU Prep subject matter experts, partnered with the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and built a math continuum to rethink how we teach math from eighth grade to calculus.”

One-on-one teaching is optimal for students, but impossible, she said.

“There are not enough teachers and not enough money to enable a one-on-one ratio, so we use technology to help instructors support learners,” she said.

The personalized “intelligent tutor,” called Digit, guides the learners, providing a rich and detailed array of data to the teacher on the student’s progress.

Digit provides hints and walks the student through each problem or concept. It can correct mathematical inaccuracies as the learner is solving a problem and then give feedback, all in an interactive and engaging way.

“It’s gamified,” Weigele said. “It’s fun to track progress.”

Digit can be used to prepare students for standardized testing without losing time reviewing content from previous years.

“We found out last year that a number of eighth grade teachers ended up teaching seventh grade concepts because students were so far behind. That’s perpetuating the issue,” she said.

“Tutoring helps fill in learning losses and, at the same time, keeps the learners on grade-level material.”

Making master learners

While the technology is the same for college learners, the support system is different for the higher education model, called MathSpine.

“The approach to higher education is very different because we’re trying to develop self-regulated master learners, so we take the training wheels off and instead of hints and feedback, we provide lectures that contextualize why someone needs to learn to learn calculus,” Weigele said.

After working on a problem, college students get an immediate answer and feedback via videos designed by faculty.

“Students need immediate feedback that is supportive and encouraging and non-punitive. Students shouldn’t be waiting a week to see if they got the wrong answer,” she said.

After the pilot with ASU Online students, the plan is to use MathSpine for eight core math courses required for a variety of STEM and business majors at ASU.

Boosting confidence

This fall, Digit is being used by about 1,000 middle schoolers around Arizona, and EdPlus is looking to partner with additional schools, according Megan Grothman, director of mathematics innovation at ASU Prep.

Grothman said it’s not always easy to convince K–12 teachers to take on more technology, though they will embrace it if it provides a clear benefit.

“Technology tool overload is a real thing in the classroom,” she said.

“But we’re showing the value of providing in-the-moment remediation and support to students within the problem-solving process — not at the end but while they’re in it.”

Grothman, who has been developing the project for more than a year, said that Digit can be used during summer bridge programs or after school.

“One of the biggest things we hear is that kids want to come in after school and parents want them to but they don’t have a math teacher available,” she said.

“With Digit and an ASU Prep Digital teacher, there only needs to be a supportive adult in the room who doesn’t have to be a math teacher.”

The other reality is that many kids don’t have time for after-school tutoring, Grothman said.

“We have to focus on helping kids be successful during the day, supporting teachers with tier one instruction and motivating students to pesevere in solving problems,” she said.

“This is more than test prep for one assessment — it’s helping them feel confident in their skills and in their algebra readiness as well.”

Top image courtesy iStock

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