Posted by: Stefan Anderson | September 24, 2012

Responding to Mathematical Diversity at Conserve School

One of the advantages of a semester school is that students get to live, learn, and play with other young adults from across the country. Conserve School recruits juniors and advanced sophomores who have demonstrated academic success in public and private schools and through a variety of homeschooling approaches.  While these students have all been successful learners, they have also each had widely varying types of academic preparation. This diversity of preparation is often a positive, as it broadens the base of knowledge that the class as a whole brings to discussions in English, history and environmental science. However, for those students choosing to continue their math studies at Conserve School, the diversity creates special challenges.

Conserve School offers math courses for students at the Advanced Algebra (sometimes referred to as Algebra 2) and Pre-Calculus levels. Each student’s preparation for these classes varies, and the expectations of their sending schools also vary based on where their previous class ended and what that school expects the students to learn this year. As a result, when Conserve School math courses are taught in a traditional manner, the semester begins with some students reviewing things they have already learned while for others it is brand new material. It is generally not a question of one student being smarter than the other, but rather a result of their difference in preparation. It can be demotivating for some students to see the work appear to come so easily to other students who are really just reviewing material that they learned in the past. It can also be demotivating for those students who are eager to move ahead to have to wait. This fall’s group of math students has presented the widest range of diversity we have so far experienced. How does a non-traditional school address such a challenge? We have addressed it with a non-traditional solution, although one that is growing in popularity across the country.

Conserve School is blending traditional direct instruction with an artificial intelligence-based system for individualized learning called ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces). The ALEKS website ( describes the program as:

“… the new way to learn math on the World-Wide-Web. By knowing exactly which math concepts the student has mastered, which are shaky, and which are new but within reach, ALEKS enables the student to work on those concepts the student is most ready to learn. ALEKS is a full-time automated tutor, including explanations, practice and feedback.”

ALEKS begins with a comprehensive assessment to determine what each student has already mastered and what each student is ready to learn next. Based on assessment results, students are presented with choices of what to learn next. This process continues until the entire curriculum is mastered.

After the Comprehensive Assessment a visual is created showing what the student has left to learn.

As students work through the course, they can select among a range of topics. The topic list is completely individualized – and shows only those topics for which the student has already mastered all the prerequisites. Students are more successful because they are ready to learn the topic. Success leads to increased confidence and self-esteem. ALEKS also fosters independent learning by providing multiple explanations and solutions.

The topic list is individualized showing only topics for which the student has mastered the prerequisites.

While many schools use ALEKS as a stand-alone instructional tool, at Conserve School we blend ALEKS with traditional instruction in the following ways. First, in addition to the built -in teaching and support from ALEKS, students are supported by experienced math teachers, both during class and some evening study hours. Second, the math teacher monitors student progress, and, as groups of students achieve teacher-developed benchmarks, provides them with direct instruction and enrichment exercises to test their knowledge and deepen their understandings in ways that online instruction can’t. Enrichment exercises include group and independent projects. Conserve School also provides students with a math textbook that is linked to the ALEKS curriculum as an additional resource to aid in understanding the concepts being presented.

Students are assessed on what they have learned during the semester, with the expectation that all students will progress at least one semester in their mathematical understanding. That means that students who start farther along will be expected to go farther, while students who began with less preparation will not be expected to go as far. All students will have access to ALEKS for at least one month after the end of the semester, so students who wish to go further may do so.

We are excited about the opportunity this new instructional model provides us to meet the mathematical diversity at Conserve School. We believe that all of our math students will benefit from the increased individualized attention.

~Stefan Anderson
Head of School

Students taking the comprehensive assessment.


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