Effects of Computer-Assisted Instruction in the Middle School Math Classroom


Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University

Abstract

There is a growing need for change in the teaching and learning of mathematics to ensure that mathematics education is compatible with a world that has become more mathematical and more technological. Since technology is growing and becoming part of the education system, studies have been conducted to determine if computer-assisted instruction has contributed to a significant difference or improvement of student achievement and student motivation in the middle school math classroom. As accountability and test scores become more relevant in today’s education system, Congress has called for the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a rigorous study of the conditions and practices under which educational technology is effective in increasing student academic achievement. The study findings indicated that differences in student test scores were not statistically significant between classrooms that were randomly assigned to use computer-assisted instruction products and those that were randomly assigned not to use the products. Other studies with different computer-assisted instruction products indicated that the student achievement and motivation was statistically significant between students who used the products compared to students that did not use the products. These findings indicated the advantages and disadvantages of using computer-assisted instruction in the math classroom.

Effects of Computer-Assisted Instruction in the Middle School Math Classroom

The use and expectations for the role of the computer in the classroom today has changed rapidly in recent years. A current assumption in public education is that the goals in math classrooms are changing. Previously, a primary goal of math curricula was the refinement of pencil-and-paper symbolic manipulation; today, technology empowers student to use basic mathematical ideas, multiple representations, and technology-assisted methods to study application problems and mathematical ideas (Heid, 1997). Many believe that computers can make learning more efficient, increase student motivation to learn, and ultimately change how teachers teach as well as how students learn (Hannafin, 2008). Many teachers today are looking towards technology to help improve pedagogy and student achievement in the math classroom. Performance on high-stakes tests is becoming increasingly important in recent years with growing demands for accountability in education. Some improvement in academic achievement has been observed since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, but the overall performance of American students in math remains a concern. Students in the United States score well below their peers in comparable countries on international assessments of math proficiency (Beal, 2007). Because of concerns over student achievement and increased expectations for the role of the computer, teachers are trying to implement more computer-assisted instruction to help improve test scores and student motivation.

Computer-assisted instruction refers to instruction or remediation presented on a computer. Many educational computer programs are available online and from computer stores and textbook companies. They are designed to enhance teacher instruction in several ways. They may illustrate concepts through attractive animation, sound, and demonstrations that are designed to engage and capture the attention of today’s technology-literate students. They allow students to progress at their own pace, they facilitate drill activities, and also provide immediate feedback to the students (American Institute for Research, 2006). It is predicted that the computer-assisted instruction can provide students with new ways to learn, think, grow intellectually, and be able to take control of their own learning (Hannafin, 2008). Computers in the classroom can be seen as a way to connect students’ lives in school with their lives outside school as video games, interactive-TV, and computer games become increasingly popular (Taepke, 2007). Computer-assisted instruction can relieve the teacher of some tasks; it allows more time to attend to other student needs (Isenberg, 2001). Computer-assisted instruction can be in the form of computer software, games, or web-based instruction. Web-based instruction allows for administrators and teachers to track student, class, school, and district data, cumulative and the data, and produce detailed reports in compliance with NCLB requirements. The comprehensive data also helps educators at the district and school levels to make more effective decisions about curriculum and instruction (Reilly, 2004).

There are numerous computer-assisted instruction applications that educators can choose from. Drill-and-practice or tutorial computer-assisted instruction can lack the real-world applications. A standard attempt to overcome this difficulty is to embed the instruction in a game-like, entertainment environment. The game-like environment may prove attention grabbing and intrinsically motivating, but it is still possible that it contributes little to desired learning outcomes because the knowledge may not transfer from the learning environment to a real-world situation (Moursand, 2001). There is such an increasing amount of material for educators and teachers to choose from, it may be difficult to determine which material is beneficial and which is not as beneficial. Teachers need to review the program, online activity, or game before directing students to that activity or application. Computer programs can be expensive for educators and school districts, so teachers need to know if the program can provide all the features desired for the students. The material presented should remain interesting to the students, but not have too much animation where valuable instructional time may be lost (American Institute for research, 2006). Technology has the potential to help students develop diverse skills from the basics to higher-order thinking. However, to be truly successful, schools need to maximize the effectiveness of their investment in technology by using it in a variety of ways. Effective technology requires research and best practices to match technology software to the curriculum and the developmental needs of learners. Content needs to be customized to enrich learning experiences with communications and links to others beyond the school walls and offer learning opportunities (Taepke, 2007). There are many beliefs that computer-assisted instruction can help improve student achievement in the math classroom, but several studies have challenged these claims. Many argue that the instructional methods used by the teacher, the attributes of the academic task, and the students themselves are the real cause of any measurable differences in student achievement (Hannafin, 2008).

Studies have been conducted to determine if computer-assisted instruction has contributed to a significant difference or improvement of student achievement and student motivation in the middle school math classroom. In the NCLB Act, Congress called for the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a rigorous study of the conditions and practices under which educational technology is effective in increasing student academic achievement. Focus was done on software products used to support reading and math instruction. The study findings indicated that differences in student test scores were not statistically significant between classrooms that were randomly assigned to use products and those that were randomly assigned not to use products (Campuzano, 2009). Other studies with different computer-assisted instruction products indicated that the student achievement and motivation was statistically significant between students who used the products compared to students that did not use the products (Taepke, 2007). Another study was conducted on the use of educational computer games within various classroom situations. This study examined whether educational computer games, in comparison to traditional paper and pencil drills, was more effective in facilitating comprehensive math learning outcomes, and whether alternative classroom goal structures would enhance or reduce the effects of computer games. The findings indicated that computer games, compared with paper-and-pencil drills, were significantly more effective in promoting learning motivation, but not significantly different in facilitating cognitive math test performance and metacognitive awareness (Ke, 2008).

Applications of computer-assisted instruction

Computer-assisted instruction refers to different programs on the computer that can be used in a classroom setting. Some of the best assessment programs are those that are easily adaptable to local curriculum and are focused on the recording and assessment of student behavior, rather than academic progress. The best of these allow teachers to develop their own tests or forms and include a databank of questions, and are aligned with various state and national standards (Reilly, 2004). There are many computer-assisted instruction programs, such as games, drill and practice, and interactive manipulatives on the web for mathematics. One such example is a computer game for elementary and middle school students where a little green monster gobbles numbers on a grid-like screen while avoiding evil monsters. The little green monster, controlled by the student, may be asked to gobble prime numbers, multiples of 4, or factors of 32. If the little green monster eats the wrong number, it disappears. This type of game is a fun way for students to teach themselves basic skills, and it can be used as a reward. Many entertaining computer mathematics games encourage students to learn while enjoying the experience (American Institute for Research, 2006).

Other programs are useful for instruction or remediation because they present problems that the student answers. If the answer is correct, the student is usually rewarded with a phrase such as, “Great Job!” or an animated response on the computer screen. If the answer is wrong, the computer demonstrates the correct way to solve the problem. Finally, there are also programs that are available to demonstrate mathematical concepts that are better explained through visual or manipulative resources. An example of this form of program is an animation where students are using a balance beam to solve equations (American Institute for Research, 2006).

Implementation of computer-assisted instruction can be a complicated and expensive process for educators. There is a wide range of features that each company offers, and of even greater concern is what is not offered. Some products are designed to be used throughout the district; some are linked to the publisher&srquo;s textbook; some only provide for tracking of objectives and outcomes, assuming that the teachers will develop the lesson plans; most are aligned with the various state standards, but some are not (Reilly, 2004). Teachers need to review the computer program or the online activity or game to understand the context of the lessons and determine the best fit to enhance instruction. The material needs to be presented in a manner so that students will remain interested yet not lose valuable instruction time trying to figure out how to operate the program. Web sites need to be reviewed constantly because addresses and links frequently change and can become inactive (American Institute for Research, 2006).

Student Motivation

An educational benefit of computer-based instruction is the ability to increase motivation and improve student attitudes. Low levels of attention behavior may have implications for developmental and instrumental learning at school. The school setting demands that children remain in their seats, wait for turns or cues, pay attention, and keep on task. Their minds are full of learning capacity, but high activity and low attention skills make learning more difficult. In this situation, the computer-assisted instruction approach can be a useful educational tool for improving student’s attention behavior (Navarro, 2003). Hannafin (2008) reported the results of a study designed to measure students’ continuing motivation to perform a future task when it was offered on the computer or in paper-pencil format. An overwhelming 97% of all participants expressed a desire to do subsequent tasks on the computer rather than in paper-pencil format. Those who worked on the computer consistently rated their own performance on the activity higher, found the material to be more interesting, and believed the questions to be easier than those who completed the task on paper.

In a study of educational computer games, Ke (2008) found that computer games promoted motivation within various classroom situations. The participants in the study were 487 students recruited from eighteen fifth-grade public school classes in four rural school districts in central-Pennsylvania. Data from 358 students were included in the report. Participants varied in gender, socio economic status, and prior math ability level: 49% female, 38% economically disadvantaged; in terms of prior math ability, 23% were below basic, 20% basic, 34% proficient, and 23% advanced. This study examined the effects of individualistic, competitive, and cooperative classroom goal structures along with different learning applications such as, computer games vs. paper-pencil drills on criterion measures (standards-based math exam performance, attitudes questionnaire and metacognitive awareness survey responses). Students’ gender, socio economic status, and prior math ability level were variables. This study used four mathematics games within the ASTRA EAGLE set that targeted 5th grade students. These games are mainly strategy games where gameplay relies on problem-solving and decision-making skills (Crawford 1997). These mathematical games included a variety of cognitive tasks targeting math concepts comprehension and skills application, such as measurement problems, comparing whole numbers, solving simple equations, and mapping x and y coordinates. Most tasks were contextualized in stories, characters, and actions relevant to school students.

Findings suggested that computer games engaged the participants and afforded greater retention over time than paper-and-pencil drills. Game playing participants demonstrated focused attention and enjoyment. The study suggested that computer games, compared with paper-and-pencil drills, were significantly more effective in promoting learning motivation but not significantly different in facilitating cognitive math test performance and metacognitive awareness (Ke, 2008).

Test Performance

Since there is a growing importance of high-stakes test performance, rigorous studies have been performed to determine if computer-assisted instruction helps facilitate and improve test scores. Taepke (2007) explains a study that was performed to investigate the effects of computer-aided instruction in the middle school algebra classroom. Campuzano (2009) also explains another study that was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. This study was conducted to determine if the conditions and practices under which educational technology is effective in increasing students’ academic achievement in reading and math (Campuzano 2009).

The study performed by the U.S. Department of Education had a team select first grade reading products, fourth grade reading products, pre-algebra products in the sixth grade, and algebra I products. The study team implemented the products in a range of school districts and schools and collected data at the beginning and end of the 2004-2005 school year (Campuzano 2009). They focused on school districts that had low student achievement and large proportions of students in poverty, but there were general guidelines rather than strict eligibility criteria. Various companies submitted 160 different educational technology programs. From the submissions, 16 products were selected for the study (Barlow 2007).

The math products used for sixth grade math were Larson Pre-Algebra (Houghton-Mifflin 2008) and Achieve Now (Plato Learning 2008). The products supplemented the core math curriculum with provided tutorial and practice opportunities and assessed student skills (Campuzano 2009). The skills that were assessed were operations with fractions, operations with decimals, operations with percents, plane and coordinate geometry, ratios, rates, proportions, operations with whole numbers, operations with integers, probability, data analysis, and measurement (Barlow 2007).

For the sixth grade study that involved the Larson Pre-Algebra product, 13 schools participated. Thirty-nine sixth grade teachers volunteered to participate and of those 39 teachers, 24 were assigned randomly to use the Larson Pre-Algebra product, and 15 were assigned not to use the product. Test scores were then obtained from 2,588 students to determine if there was a significant difference in test scores. For the PLATO Achieve Now product, thirteen schools participated in this part of the study. Thirty-nine sixth grade teachers volunteered to participate. Twenty-one of these teachers were assigned randomly to use the PLATO Achieve Now product and 18 were assigned not to use the product. Test scores were then obtained from 1,037 students to also determine if there was a significant difference in test scores. The results for the sixth grade study indicated that for the Larson Pre-Algebra product, the estimated treatment effect was 2.37 (p-value = 0.14). The estimated treatment effect was not statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance. The results for the PLATO Achieve Now product indicated that the estimated treatment effect was -0.58 (p-value = 0.69). This estimated treatment effect was not statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance. (Campuzano 2009).

The math products used for Algebra I were Cognitive Tutor Algebra I (Carnegie Learning 2008) and Larson Algebra I (Houghton-Mifflin 2008). The Larson product supplemented algebra I instruction and the Cognitive Tutor product was the core algebra I curriculum (Campuzano 2009). The skills that were assessed were functions, linear equations, linear inequalities, quadratic equations, linear expressions, and polynomials (Barlow 2007).

Eleven schools participated in the study that involved the Cognitive Tutor product. There were 29 algebra I teachers who volunteered to participate in the study. Of the twenty-nine teachers, 15 were assigned randomly to use the Cognitive Tutor product, and 14 were assigned not to use the product. Test scores were then obtained from 755 to determine if there was a significant difference in test scores among the two groups. For the part of the study that involved the Larson Algebra I product, test scores were obtained from 1,204 students in 12 different schools. Forty-three algebra I teachers volunteered to participate and of those teachers, 24 teachers were assigned randomly to use the product and 19 were assigned not to use the product. The results for the algebra I study showed that for the Cognitive Tutor Algebra I product, the estimated treatment effect was -1.28 (p-value = 0.26). The estimated treatment effect was not statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance. The results for the Larson Algebra I product indicated that the estimated treatment effect was -0.10 (p-value = 0.93). This effect was not statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance (Campuzano 2009).

Taepke (2007) explains a study that investigated the effects of using computer-based curriculum, Destination Math, in the middle school algebra classroom. Destination Math was a visually oriented, computer-based mathematics curriculum compatible with California Mathematics standards. It was a sequenced, comprehensive mathematics curriculum that demonstrated mathematical issues that arose from real-life situations and correlated to the California State Content Standards and offered full on-line teacher support with printable student worksheets. The program enabled teacher to supplement classroom instruction in a computer lab environment to facilitate differentiated instruction for individual students’ dynamic levels of proficiency. In the lab, each student was able to work independently at a computer to reinforce concepts previously taught in class, learn new concepts, and enhance basic math skills. The interactive format of Destination Math imitated the popular video game format that attracts student’s attention.

There were 1452 middle-school algebra participants that were seldom, occasionally, or often exposed the algebra modules of Destination Math. Data was collected over three years (2002-2004) and analyzed with ANOVA, ANCOV, and multiple regression. Students who received the greatest exposure to Destination Math achieved higher first and second semester algebra grades than participant groups who received less treatment. Increased exposure to Destination Math computer software was associated with increased first and second semester classroom achievement in middle school algebra students. Statistically significant effects were localized using pairwise tests with Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons. Findings were considered statistically significant at p<0.05. No significant differences were seen in the California Achievement Test (CAT4SS), a standardized statewide test of general mathematics, possibly because of content validity in that the statewide test was not algebra specific. Interview with algebra teachers (n=6) generally revealed support, and suggested that improved performance came from improved compliance, specifically because interactive software captures and holds student attention and thereby increased focus time on a task (Taepke, 2007).

Conclusion

Computer-assisted instruction is a new and growing way of pedagogy in today’s educations system. As technology becomes more prevalent in today’s society, teachers continue to try to use more technology in the classroom. Performance on high-stakes tests has become increasingly important in recent years with the growing demands for accountability in education. Many teachers are looking toward technology to help improve student motivation and academic achievement in the math classroom.

With these growing demands in accountability and increasing technology that is available to educators, the question of the benefits of computer-assisted instruction remains in the minds of educators. The studies suggested that computer-assisted instruction can keep students much more engaged and motivated than the paper-and-pencil drills. But, as discussed in the study conducted by the Department of Education and Taepke, there was no statistically significant difference in student test scores. A school may have the best software ever made and access to the web on every computer, but to increase student learning, teachers need to know how to use the technology and incorporate it into their instruction that will make math relevant to the student. Computer-assisted instruction will continue to grow and be part of the education system. As new technology comes and different programs get developed, there might be a program that helps improve test scores in the middle school math classroom. This new technology can come with many advantages and disadvantages; it is up to the educator to weigh those advantages and disadvantages and to determine how to use it in the classroom to best benefit each and every student.

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