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November 19, 2013

Cognitive Tutor: Encouraging Signs for Computers in the Classroom

The increasing availability of computers and Internet access makes technology-based education an enticing option, both inside and outside the classroom. However, school districts have adopted many such tools without compelling evidence that they are effective in improving student achievement.

To help fill this evidence gap, a RAND research team studied the effectiveness of Cognitive Tutor Algebra I (CTAI), a first-year algebra curriculum that blends tutoring software with conventional textbook learning. CTAI is unique in its ability to supply personalized instruction based on what students know and do not know.

The bottom line is that CTAI had a significant positive effect for high school algebra students. As one of the first large-scale assessments of a blended learning approach, this study suggests promise for using technology to improve student achievement.

The study looked at algebra students in 73 high schools and 74 middle schools, in seven states, over the course of two years. Students in a randomly selected set of these schools received the blended learning approach of classroom instruction and CTAI, while a control group completed the more traditional algebra courses already being used in their schools. Schools using CTAI did not receive any special support, making this study a realistic and rigorous evaluation of its effects.

Among the 18,700 high school students in the study, researchers found significant improvements among those using Cognitive Tutor—a change equivalent to moving from the 50th percentile on an algebra posttest to the 58th. Researchers found a similar trend for middle school students, but it was not statistically significant.

Figure 1: The Effect Is Equivalent to Moving an Algebra I Student from the 50th Percentile on the Algebra Posttest to the 58th Percentile

These improvements occurred in the second year of the study, suggesting that teachers and schools needed some time to implement CTAI effectively. This highlights the need for patience when adopting innovations.

Educators and policymakers alike have long been concerned about the performance of American students in mathematics, so improvements of this magnitude can be very important. In particular, algebra plays a prominent role in addressing the challenges of mathematics education in America; it may act as a “gateway class,” ushering students into higher-level math and science courses.

Cost might also be a consideration for cash-strapped districts. While the focus of the study was efficacy and not cost, researchers found that CTAI cost approximately $70 more per student compared to the algebra curricula the schools were already using. That said, districts seeking to improve math achievement might find CTAI to be a better investment than other options.

— Pete Wilmoth