More Thoughtful Math Classes
Most digital math curriculums are little more than a library of gussied up problems that students are expected to solve with minimal preparation and assistance. Not so with Think Through Math, an online system that individually holds the hand of every student, from third grade on guiding them from identifying the numbers through the basic operations and on to fractions and algebra.
Because it is delivered via the Web, Think Through Math (TTM) works on any recent computer, and many older ones. There’s nothing to download, it is agnostic to operating system and does everything within a browser window. I used the math education system with a PC, Mac, Chromebook and an Android tablet. It worked with Internet Explorer, Chrome and Opera Web browsers.
Everything is stored online, so TTM can be used at school just as easily as at home or the library. At any point students can stop and pick up where they left off.
There is a snag, though. The system as it is currently set up requires Flash to run. As a result, iPads are off limits. The company is eliminating the Flash requirement and all of the lessons should be Flash-free and ready for iPads by early 2014, followed by an Android version.
The math system can help each student get the most out of the system and everything is available in English or Spanish. It’s not meant to replace a textbook-based approach to teaching math, but to augment it, particularly for those at the extremes who struggle and excel because each student’s curriculum is personalized to their strengths and weaknesses.
After logging in for the first time, each student creates a personalized avatar by selecting from an assortment of body parts and clothes and takes a placement test so they get started at the right curriculum. They then take a Pre-Quiz that is meant to gauge his or her abilities. Most of the questions have visual aids and the feedback is nearly instantaneous.
The kids get one shot at the right answer at this stage. Next up is the Warm Up phase, where they go through a series of slides that have problems with detailed explanations about how to approach and solve them.
As is the case with all the lessons, there’s no time limit on reviewing it, working it out and answering the questions. It’s good in that some people take longer to consolidate the information, but it also means that those who struggle with the concept at hand will spend too much time pondering the solution. In fact, some of the questions are tricky – like putting a zero in the denominator of an otherwise correct answer – that will catch students moving too quickly.
Along the way, each lesson and test earns points that can be used to get badges; I quickly earned the “Spinach Eater’s” badge. This point system can be used to keep track of student progress and inject some healthy class- or school-wide competition.
A district or school can also use these points to donate actual money to charities. For instance some districts raised thousands of dollars for everything from wounded Warrior Project to the Red Cross. All told, TTM students have contributed more than $48,000, but, unfortunately, the fundraising can’t be used for school projects.
The key difference between TTM and other math programs is that at any time, the student can summon an online teacher to help them figure out the concept or work through the individual problem. The live online help starts with a text- and audio based chat session that can escalate with audio and a white board to flesh out the details. There’s no face-to-face video, though.
To make this one-on-one tutoring happen, the company employs 40 instructors, all of whom are certified teachers. They are available Monday through Thursday from 7:30AM to Midnight, Fridays from 7:30AM to 10PM, Saturdays from 11AM to 3PM and Sundays from 6PM to 10PM.
Now that the TTM preliminaries are out of the way, the student goes through the Guided Learning phase, which has visual explanations and audio coaching to make the concepts stick. It not only reinforces the earlier material, but takes the learning to a new level. Rather than tracking right and wrong responses, the idea here is to foster uninhibited understanding and the student can re-answer incorrect answers at this stage.
As is the case with a lot of math education, TTM can’t be done entirely on-screen. As a result, students will likely need some paper and pencils to draw diagrams, do arithmetic and sketch a figure while waiting for inspiration strike. The program could be improved with a section for using a tablet’s stylus or fingers.
TTM does provide a calculator, a glossary with key formulas and a dictionary of math words and definitions. Unfortunately, you can only use one of these items at a time. While the system works well and screens are delivered in a matter of a second or two, at a couple points the program required that the browser be refreshed.
The next stage is the all-important Practice phase. Here, students are encouraged to try their new skills out. The screens look like the earlier quiz and guided learning portions but the problems attempt to test whether the concepts have been learned. They also have explanatory animation sequences after each question has been answered.
The final part is the Post-Quiz, where the student gets a series of problems and has one shot at getting them right. If a student gets a 70 or below, he’s sent back to relearn the material.
All told, TTM can take a child from counting and identifying numbers through fractions and the operations to word problems and early algebra with the district or teacher determining the order that the sections are introduced. At the moment, TTM has more than 20,000 problems available for use.
The problem is that TTM stops at roughly the end of middle school. It would be strengthened with courses on advanced algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus to fill out its curriculum, something that the company is currently working on.
At the teacher end of the equation, TTM provides extensive feedback on student progress. The company provides a detailed Dashboard that can show individual and class progress as well as deliver personal encouragement to individual students.
At roughly $16 per student per year, TTM is a reasonably priced adjunct to traditional math learning. Unlike the competition, it includes unlimited use of the system’s online tutors. There’s a big bonus with TTM: the ability to use the lessons, practice and problems at night, over the weekend or during the summer at no extra cost to help kids retain what they’ve learned and hopefully take it a step farther.
All told, TTM is a complete set of lessons, quizzes and problems that can guide children from early math through Algebra. I only wish it went further into the math curriculum.
Price: $16 per student per year
+ Guided approach to learning
+ Sequence from diagnostic to proficiency
+ Live tutors available
+ Good video learning aids
+ Lots of practice problems
+ Teacher Dashboard for real-time feedback
+ Spanish and English
- Only goes to Algebra I
- Doesn’t work with iPads
- Can’t use school fundraising