How Personalized Learning Can Help Struggling Students

When you work for a software company that has yet to ship a product, it is extremely unusual to have a potential customer take the time to visit your offices and thank you for changing the life of her child. However, just such a visit occurred during an extensive series of after-school beta tests we performed in schools while preparing the first release of DreamBox Math.

“I just had to come and thank you,” our visitor said after introducing herself.

She explained that she and her husband had been called into a meeting six weeks earlier because their daughter had been struggling with math for quite some time and wasn’t making any progress. They were told that the school had done everything it could to help their daughter and that they needed to find her assistance outside of school.

Personalized LearningAs she left the meeting, the woman noticed a sign-up sheet for our after-school program on a notice board and, after calling to see whether there were still spots available, signed up her daughter. Less than two months later, here she was at the DreamBox offices:

“I just came from a meeting with her teacher,” she told us. “Not only does she now love math, but her teacher just told me she is ahead of the majority of her classmates, so I had to come and thank you for changing all our lives for the better.”

I relate this particular story not only because I was there, but also because – as far as I know – it was the first such feedback that we received. While this woman’s “thank you” was the first, it is indicative of so many emails and phone calls that we’ve received at DreamBox over the years.

The Question:
Her story also brings a fundamental question about personalized learning to light: Why can a personalized learning program help struggling students when one-on-one tutoring hasn’t been successful?

From the beginning of the development of DreamBox Math, we focused on how the technology could respond appropriately to students who were having difficulties. Typically, these students feel that they aren’t “good at math,” and they often lack the fundamental understanding of mathematical concepts introduced in lower grade levels.

Students Need to Explore:
In order to grasp these fundamental concepts, struggling students often need to explore ideas for themselves (along with a bit of guidance) rather than simply memorizing facts and algorithms. This exploration is often something they are not very comfortable doing around others because they don’t want to fail.

So at DreamBox, we decided to turn to the idea of video games to overcome this problem. If there is one thing the majority of students have learned from playing video games it is that it’s OK to fail when trying different approaches. In fact, you are expected to fail the first time you try a new game, so there’s no shame if you do.

To most students, DreamBox is a game. One of our goals when creating the program was to leverage that feeling of uninhibited exploration while providing an environment where students could not only progress steadily, but also believe that they were driving that success themselves – which, by the way, they usually are.

The Answer:
To truly help struggling math students, personalized learning products must also:

  • Adapt appropriately to the student from the very first time he or she interacts with the product
  • Continue to adapt and react to each interaction made by the student in the moment
  • Adjust factors such as the difficulty of problems posed, the amount and depth of instruction and assistance, and the pacing of the content provided
  • Provide assistance that is timely and just the amount that the student needs
  • Seamlessly move between areas of the curriculum to enable the student to fill in gaps in his or her understanding as necessary
  • Respond in a non-judgmental way

To do these things effectively, personalized learning programs must develop an increasingly detailed understanding of what the student does and does not know. But more importantly, the program’s lessons must have been designed to be highly adaptive.

Instant Analyzation: If a personalized learning program is going to have the capability to adapt appropriately to each interaction with a student, it needs to be able to instantly analyze that input, compare it to how the student has responded previously and react in the exactly right way for that student in that moment.

All students struggle in school at one point or another, but with such large class sizes it is often not possible for teachers to provide everyone with the individualized attention that they need at the time they need it.

In some cases, the gaps in a student’s conceptual understanding can be significant enough that they can’t be fully addressed within regular class time. Not only is this demotivating for the student involved, but the ramifications can last for years if the problem is not addressed appropriately.

It is in these situations that intelligent adaptive learning programs excel. Not only are they available 24/7, but IAL programs address the needs of each student individually and adapt lessons in the moment. This allows the best adaptive learning programs to address conceptual understanding issues, significantly accelerate student progress, and even convert discouraged students who “hated math” into fully engaged, budding mathematicians. For many struggling learners, that can be a truly life-changing event.

What are your strategies for helping struggling math students?

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Nigel Green

Director of Personalization @DreamBox_Learn | Developer of Continuous Assessment and Adaptation | Former Teacher | Professional Musician | Bellevue, WA