Knewton Alta Refreshers

Summer treat or fruitless chore?

The Question

Alta delivers just-in-time remediation to prerequisite skills when students demonstrate a knowledge gap while working on an adaptive assignment—we call these “refreshers.”

Refreshers start by giving the student a couple of practice questions on the most immediately relevant, nearby prerequisite to the target learning objective they’re struggling on. If the student has no difficulty with those refresher questions, they’ll immediately head back on target to their assigned objectives.

But if the student has difficulty with the initial refresher objective, Alta will deliver instructional material aligned to that prerequisite and further practice—and if that doesn’t close the knowledge gap, Alta can deliver further remediation to more distant prerequisites. If we think of each step “away” from the assigned, target learning objective as a “hop” on the Knowledge Graph, refreshers can include content up to three learning objective “hops” away.

If you were to pick a student’s assignment at random from across your class (or all of Alta), it probably doesn’t have any refresher material in it at all; most students don’t need or see refreshers on most of their assignments. However, the majority of students need a refresher on some learning objective at some point during their course.

How often are students encountering this refresher material? How many “hops” is it from the instructor’s assigned objectives? What happens to the assignment as a whole when refreshers are present? In short: what’s the impact of an Alta refresher?

The Caveat

We have a huge amount of robust data on student interactions flowing through the adaptive engine powering Alta, and we can and do perform analysis on trends, outcomes, and pain points in the student adaptive experience on a rolling basis. But getting directly at the question of what impact a refresher made for a particular student is a very hard question—to really know for sure, we’d need to do something like find an identical “control student” to take the assignment with no refresher, and to compare their results with the “test student” who engaged with refresher material!

The analysis below is not meant to prove that any particular refresher definitely helped any particular student—instead, we’ll show some high-level, aggregate trends in what tends to happen when students engage with refreshers.

The Dataset

This analysis draws on data sampled from the four largest families of titles in Alta for Fall 2021—those happen to be the Alta titles in College Algebra and Precalculus, Chemistry, Foundations of Algebra, and Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning. Student usage of these titles amounted to more than 40 million interactions with questions or instructional materials, and for this dataset, we sampled at random about a quarter of the student-assignment pairs from each subject area.

The Results

What percentage of student-assignment pairs had any refreshers?

In general, about 10-15% of student assignments featured any refreshers at all. A student who enters their class with less subject-matter familiarity might see refreshers on more assignments than this, while a highly prepared student might see them on fewer—but around 80% of students encounter a refresher at least once across their entire engagement with Alta.

Subject area Percentage of student-assignment pairs with any remediation
College Algebra and Precalculus 14%
Chemistry 15%
Foundations of Algebra 9%
Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning 10%


When refreshers occurred, how much of the assignment were they?

A typical refresher experience is short, both in terms of the number of questions students answer and as a proportion of the overall assignment in which it occurs.

Subject area How much of the assignment was “refresher?” Median number of refresher questions
College Algebra and Precalculus 19% 5
Chemistry 16% 4
Foundations of Algebra 17% 4
Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning 21% 5


When refreshers occurred, what was the subsequent assignment completion rate?

While this data does not prove that the refresher is the reason why students were able to reach 100% progress on their assignment, we can see that the vast majority of students were able to close their knowledge gap(s) and perform well enough to reach mastery on the assigned learning objectives after engaging with a refresher. These completion rates are quite close to those of students who start their assignment with a high level of preparedness (and thus correctness) — that’s an important outcome we look for in Alta data.

Subject area Percentage of students reaching 100% progress after working on refreshers
College Algebra and Precalculus 81%
Chemistry 90%
Foundations of Algebra 88%
Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning 81%


When refreshers occurred, how many “hops” away from target were they?

Most frequently, when a student encounters a refresher, they’ll only work on a single-hop prerequisite to the assigned learning objective. Among the already small percentage of assignments featuring refreshers, only about 20% of assignments result in refreshers more than one hop away. This reflects Alta’s attempt to provide just-in-time interventions only as needed: multi-hop remediation is Alta’s most time-intensive intervention, and Alta only provides it to students in cases of persistent knowledge gaps where we think we might be of help.

Subject area Percentage of refresher assignments with only 1-hop refreshers Percentage of refresher assignments with 2- or 3-hop refreshers
College Algebra and Precalculus 77% 23%
Chemistry 82% 18%
Foundations of Algebra 80% 20%
Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning 78% 22%


When remediated many “hops” away, how did students end up doing on the remainder of the assignment?

Completion rates (and final progress scores) for students remain fairly high, even in the presence of multi-hop refreshers, but rates do drop as the population of students is restricted to only those engaging with such refreshers. Our hypothesis is not that 2- or 3-hop refreshers are causing lower completion rates—but that students who demonstrate a need for significant remediation have a higher hill to climb than their more prepared peers, with or without Alta’s help. We think that these “struggling students” are a key group underserved by traditional homework assignments and online courseware, and many new features developed for Alta are designed precisely to help them.

Subject area Percentage of students reaching 100% progress after working on 1-hop refreshers Average progress when 1-hop refresher students stopped working on the assignment Percentage of students reaching 100% progress after working on 2- or 3-hop refreshers Average progress when 2- or 3-hop refresher students stopped working on the assignment
College Algebra and Precalculus 83% 93% 75% 90%
Chemistry 91% 96% 85% 93%
Foundations of Algebra 90% 96% 80% 91%
Quantitative and Statistical Reasoning 83% 93% 75% 88%


What’s next?

Alta’s refreshers occur infrequently, and usually on the way to student success. But these high-level statistics are small comfort to an individual student who feels “stuck” working on a refresher that they either can’t master or think is irrelevant. That’s why Alta has current and newly emerging functionality designed to enable more student agency in digital learning.

First, when students get stuck and exhaust the available refresher learning objectives, Alta will surface a pop-up screen suggesting students reach out to their instructor for some “real human” guidance. If the student’s not ready to do that, Alta can also suggest the student take a quick break to clear their mind and play a little game we call Knerdie.

Second, we’re nearing the end of our pilots for new “end refresher” agency in Alta. For institutions enrolled in the pilot, this functionality lets students decide after a couple of refresher questions that they think it’s a better use of their time to go back to assigned, target work and try again, instead of continuing to work on refresher content until Alta thinks they’re ready. Our initial pilot results have indicated that assignment completion rates have not dropped as a result of this new freedom of choice, and we’re hard at work expanding other modes of student agency elsewhere in Alta this summer.


Knerd Story – Skylar Carlson, University of the Pacific

Skylar Carlson
University of the Pacific
Chemistry (about 60 students)

“Overall I love it!”

How long have you been using Knewton Alta?

I have been using Knewton Alta since the spring of 2020, when we had to do the switch to online learning. Having Knewton Alta at that time was great because it gave the students alternate instruction when we were short on additional help (e.g., tutoring centers were closed). Students didn’t have the resources they were used to, or that I used to be able to offer to them for extra help.

Knewton Alta “came in clutch” during the pandemic. I didn’t use it over the summer because the class meets every day and I felt that the turnaround time was too fast. Many of my students were working as well, and it was too much.

I used Knewton Alta again in Fall 2021 and really enjoyed it. It allowed me to not have to worry about homework. During the summer, when I wasn’t using Knewton Alta, I was reminded of how much it helps me. I forgot what a pain it was to have to grade homework!!

How do you implement Knewton Alta into your class?

For every class, students have a Knewton Alta assignment due 48 hours later. I have it set up so that they have homework due after my class. It gives me an extra little bit of time to cover material, but also it gives students a chance to ask me a question before or after class. Or ask a question for the whole class. The feedback I get from students is that they really liked the metering, meaning I’m giving them these regular chunks as opposed to when I did it all at once the first time I used Knewton Alta.
Logo Description automatically generated
I just find that students don’t work ahead.
We give students 20% for the lab, 10% for Knewton Alta homework, 10% for workshop questions or textbook questions, and then the last 60% comes from exams. I like to use it as a supplement, not as something I’m going to spend time going through with myself in great detail.

Knewton Alta drives my class. Each of the bullet points [in my syllabus] (see below) represents a Knewton Alta objective. I choose all the objectives that go along with what I want to talk about that day. One of the things I struggle with a little is making sure that the objectives I choose match the entirety of the content I am teaching. I try and keep the time allocations even. So I might have six objectives on one day and 10 on another, but I have chosen them so that, collectively, they take less than two hours each—which means I have four hours of homework each week, which I think is fair.

The way that I have my course schedule set up is that students can see the chapter, the Knewton Alta objectives for the chapter, and the days we’re going to be covering that material. Below that are all the textbook problems for two different editions of the book.

In the fall I don’t have the same support that I have in the spring, when I have students turn in their workshop or textbook questions. There’s something very different about hand-writing answers that I have found to compliment Knewton Alta quite well.

There are quite a few things I cover that aren’t covered in Knewton Alta, so I supplement the Knewton Alta objectives.

Student Feedback

One student marched into my office and said, “I don’t understand your lectures. I understand Knewton Alta better!” I said I’ll tell the developers that—they’ll be glad to hear it.

Students really seem to like the videos and tutorials that come along with the lessons because I pushed them to actually take the time to listen to those. I also have the students explain things to each other. I can only explain it to them the way that it makes sense to me, and their textbook presents it in a way that was reviewed and published. But it can be useful to go out and explain it to a study group or hear one of your colleagues explain it to you. And, lastly, going through Knewton Alta and/or YouTube allows students the opportunity to hear the content explained and described in different ways and helps them start to connect the ideas.

How important to you is the adaptive nature of Knewton Alta?

I think it’s super important. Some students really like it and other students are annoyed. I will say, however, that for some students, you can see that the first homework took them four hours and then every homework has taken them a fraction of an hour (half an hour or less). I see that some students get frustrated and instead of working through it; they seem to have given up on the platform and are just Googling the answers to try and get through it faster. So instead of trying to be a disciplinarian about it, I just say it’s your money, your experience. If that’s what you’re going to do, then there’s nothing I can do for you.
Diagram Description automatically generated with medium confidenceI have to remind them that it’s not a punishment, but if they get lots of things wrong, it means they didn’t get it, so they need to spend a little bit more time. The really challenging part is that I have some students who took an AP and they got all the points, but my school doesn’t give them credit for both semesters. So they’re sitting here bored out of their mind, having done really well in AP chem. And then I have other students who are struggling. They didn’t get any background in chemistry and are coming at this abstract thinking the first time and have no clue. They just don’t know what to do with themselves.


Which of your specific goals that you have as a teacher does Knewton Alta address for you?

I think it meets students where they’re at technologically better than any product that I’ve seen. As a book/paper learner, it’s hard for me to look in a classroom full of smartphone kids and tell them, “You’ve got to bust out your textbook and do text problems.” Having the YouTube links, the interactive learning stuff, and breaking it up into the pieces (metering) helps students both set goals and understand the component parts that work together.

Room for Improvement

Things I would change are:

I don’t like that I have to set up my outline and have everything done at the beginning of the semester and imported into Canvas. So I don’t know if that’s a crutch I’ve been leaning on too heavily. I may be missing a feature in Knewton Alta where perhaps I don’t need to sync it up through Canvas, and then I could make more on-the-fly changes.

The other thing that’s really challenging is that your first student to complete an assignment locks that assignment from being able to be edited. And then if I find out there’s an objective that sounded like it was aligned to what we were covering, but it ended up not being so, I can’t fix it.

If there is an objective that has absolutely nothing to do with what we’re studying, the students have to click through it in order to progress to the stuff that’s actually in our class. Something that I would like to see in future editions is that, instead of five objectives being locked and you have to do one, two, three, and four to get to five, it would be great if there were a way for students who realize they are stuck on objective two, to go to office hours for help on that one, but keep going and do and do three and four on their own.

I’ve not had a ton of time to experiment from the student side to see if they’re able to skip around. But I hear from students that they can’t move around. Then I have to excuse them for the whole assignment because the bad objective is parked in the middle and then they’re locked in, either clicking through it or Googling the answers or whatever they have to do to get through it. And it defeats the purpose of the whole endeavor.

Knerd Story – David Simon, Baton Rouge Community College

David Simon
Baton Rouge Community College


For a long time, I’ve been thinking about making videos of me teaching, but didn’t get around to it. The move to remote learning in spring 2020 was the motivation I needed to get going on making these teaching videos. By the end of that first week of remote learning, I had a rig set up with my tripod, a selfie stick, and my phone, and I just started making videos and created a YouTube channel. The channel now has about 200 videos.

Why did you decide to use Knewton Alta?

As a college, we had decided to pilot different products in different courses. In the fall of 2019 I was piloting Knewton Alta, along with another competitor product. In the beginning, I really got into Knewton Alta. I just felt that it flowed better, was easier for students to latch on to, and linked up with Canvas much more easily. It was working great. Cut to March 2020 and I was starting my video project in the middle of the semester and working with multiple software platforms in different courses.
I quickly realized I didn’t want my videos to be connected to any particular textbook, so I decided not to use textbook problems in my videos. Instead, I used my own problems, and didn’t have to follow along with textbook chapters, and could let things unfold in my own way. I started incorporating Knewton, which I felt fit in with my plan in a more seamless way. I had links to OpenStax textbooks, and Knewton worked better with my videos. So I stuck with it.

What features of Knewton Alta do you like?

The fact that the homework is interactive and can pinpoint for students where they are is so important. Knewton Alta can tell them, “You need to practice this topic some more…” Instead of just being the typical “Do questions one through five and hopefully I can give you feedback.”
Logo Description automatically generatedKnewton Alta can give students that individualized feedback. That’s what I need. And I know some of the other software does that too, but Knewton was simpler and it just worked out better.
This interactive stuff, this is the future. Especially with all the video conferencing technology and all the remote learning that’s happening. I don’t think education is ever going back to the way it was. Nobody’s going to let that happen.
I like that Knewton Alta is a software where you don’t ever see a negative, or the downside because it doesn’t ever take points away. That’s one thing that helps motivate students too. They can lose confidence if they keep getting hammered for getting things wrong.
Knewton Alta’s adaptability is important. I tried a couple of softwares that were adaptive. A competitor product was also good, but it’s just the interface of Knewton seemed to flow better. The problem choices were a bit more varied. I felt like I could do more in it. I could make some of the problems in it. And there were just too many blockades for some of the other softwares. Like they didn’t link with Canvas or students had to log in somewhere else. Knewton Alta and myself jive, like puzzle pieces, my tap dancing, and its adaptability. And I just kept getting such good feedback from the students about it too.

What has been the impact of using Knewton Alta?

Diagram Description automatically generatedWell, things have been developing since Spring 2020. I kept piloting Knewton Alta at my school until I was able to show everyone how well it was working. I used to have a 40 or 50% pass rate. Now I’m up to a 70% pass rate.
This semester (Fall 2021) we actually went ahead and adopted it for the college algebra and trigonometry classes too. And it seems to be going really well. There are always pitfalls when lots of people are using things because some people are good at the technology and some people aren’t. I’ve tried to help as much as I can. And then my Customer Success Manager for Knewton Alta fills in most of the gaps. And I’m hoping that it can keep going. I know sometimes people have a tendency to regress and they want to go to something they know, and they want to go back to solutions and partners we’ve used in the past. And I say no, we can’t do that.

Implementation Strategy

I teach a topic and assign a Knewton Alta homework on the topic (or sub-topic). I try to cut the homework up into manageable chunks of about half an hour each. I do this if the Knewton topic is too big. It also allows students to get quick feedback and encouragement. Then even if one weekly Canvas module has seven or eight assignments, students know each one will take about 30 minutes.
Many educators, myself included, would love to be able help individual students. Back in the “little red school house days” you had individual attention. It would be great to be able to stand next to a student and let them know I’m helping them today, until they understand the material like the back of their hand. We just can’t do that. Every semester I’ve got upwards of 200+ students in a small college.
We’re getting technology like Knewton Alta, right when we need it—or maybe a little bit later than we need.

And I don’t know if a lot of us realized that until something like Knewton Alta came along. But now we can figure out where the problems are, where students’ difficulties are, and try to smooth them out. And that’s what we’ve been needing.

What’s New in Knewton Alta – March 2020

Wiley is committed to a culture of continuous improvement with Knewton Alta, which is why we are always engaging instructors and students to gather feedback and optimize the learning experience moving forward.

We also understand that this is a challenging time for both instructors and students, as many of you are acting quickly to move your courses online. Wiley and the Knewton Alta team have worked to compile a collection of resources and best practices for moving to, and teaching in, an on-line format. You can explore this collection here.

As always, we are very cautious with our product releases to ensure minimal disruption during the semester, while continuing to provide an ever-improving experience for you and your students.

Below you will find information on enhancements made to Knewton Alta during the month of March. If you haven’t looked at Knewton Alta in a while, you’re missing something special.

Instructor Control of Question Order in Assessments

More control over your course and assessments means a more personalized experience.

To get more instruction on creating an assessment, check out this video and guide.


Anticipated Spring Releases

Hey Knerds! Welcome to the future! We are working hard to improve the Knewton Alta experience and wanted to share some of our upcoming planned releases, just to give you a clearer picture of where we are headed.

 Better Visibility

Improved Student Context

The update will help students to better understand their path to mastery and provide transparency into the type of work that has been completed. A select number of instructors will be piloting this semester to provide feedback on what works best. The new experience will be available to all in May, once the semester has concluded.


Currently Being Researched for Future Release

Review Insights to better prepare for quizzes and tests


Check out the Knewton Blog each month to see the improvements we’ve made to Knewton Alta.

A Year in Review. What’s new in Knewton Alta in 2020

Putting achievement within reach for all students is a continuous journey. Students evolve as quickly as technology does, which is why Wiley is committed to a culture of continuous improvement with Knewton Alta.

We’ve continued to pound the pavement in 2019, asking every student and instructor we can get in front of how we can make their Knewton Alta experience better. Our goal: making an even bigger impact on learning outcomes by continually optimizing our journey together.

Of course, improving the experience of students and instructors requires more than just listening. It takes action. Throughout 2019 we’ve released a series of features and enhancements that address the feedback we received.

Below you will find a year-in-review, highlighting all of the enhancements made to Knewton Alta throughout 2019. If you haven’t looked at Knewton Alta in a while, you’re missing something special.

New Pricing Models

Alta Pricing Options

We believe that cost should never be a barrier for students.


Updates to Adaptive Learning

Alta Adaptive Learning

We are adapting to provide a consistently improving experience for instructors and students


Managing your Course

Less time managing your Knewton Alta course equals more time for teaching and learning


Tests and Quizzes

The new Assessment Builder makes it easier to create the right type of assessment (quiz or test) to match your needs.



Instructors will experience a more seamless experience when navigating to the Knerd Studio

4 Challenges Instructors Face to Stay Current in 2020 and Tips to Overcome Them

Teaching Higher Ed in 2020 is no easy task. Consistent change has left many instructors facing an uphill battle to stay current. And while keeping up to date on the latest technology and teaching trends can be difficult enough on its own, it can be even more challenging to actually implement these new ideas in the classroom, with many instructors facing a lack of time, limited colleague and student support, and inadequate resources.

Still, the benefit for both you and your students can far outweigh the effort once you overcome these obstacles. To help get you there faster, below are a few of the most common challenges instructors cite when asked why they wait to change, along with tips to help you overcome these roadblocks when making the move for yourself. 

  1. Lack of time – For most instructors, it’s hard enough to find time for their normal responsibilities, so the thought of adding to those by incorporating new technology or teaching technique can seem overwhelming. Still, as studies show more about the different ways that students learn, it’s important to incorporate those learning where applicable to help give students a better chance at success.

How do you modify your teaching methods without spending hours on prep work?


  1. Lack of training and support within departmental culture – Going hand in hand with a lack of time is a lack of training and colleague support. It can take a lot of time to get yourself up to speed on new technology or new teaching techniques, and when you feel alone in the battle, you’re more likely to give up and stick with what you know. Studies show an instructor whose department does not support a new initiative is less likely to try it themselves. And it’s not just about encouraging faculty members to try it, studies show instructors need to be continually supported as they train for and implement these practices to increase the likelihood of success.

 How do you find training and support to help implement and effectively use new technology and teaching methods in the classroom?


  1. Lack of student engagement – Student engagement is a tough nut to crack. With a diverse classroom of students and a variety of learners, finding the best way to engage with each of your students can be mind-boggling on its own, but throw in using a format they’re not used to, and it can feel like a recipe for disaster. In fact, many instructors avoid new teaching methods—like active learning—because they find students are resistant to it and do not come to class prepared. So, basically, studies show that these new teaching methods are good for students, but what’s the point if they don’t participate?

How do you get students excited about participating in class?


  1. Lack of classroom space and resources – The environment a student learns in can have a big impact on their success. For some students, a large lecture may work, but for others, they need more personalized activities to stay engaged. But when you have a class of 300, how do you effectively utilize things like active learning or provide individualize activities based on your students’ needs? And even when you do have a smaller class, how do you modify the standard, fixed-seating classrooms to better foster student engagement activities?

How do you foster active learning and engage students in both large lectures and small classrooms?


At Knewton we know these challenges can set you back when trying to provide your students with the best education possible. With that in mind, we built our courseware to help you overcome many of the common challenges’ instructors face today. With dedicated training and support, goal focused activities built directly into the courseware, and a studio that allows you to collaborate with fellow instructors anytime, anywhere, Knewton Alta is mastery-based, adaptive courseware that puts achievement within reach for all students and helps you accomplish the goals you never thought possible.

Demo Knewton Alta today and explore the potential.


Knerd Q&A: Meet two of the brains behind Knewton’s latest course – Knewton Alta Calculus

Alta wouldn’t be possible without a masterful group of Knerds taking care of business behind the scenes to provide you with the best product imaginable. To give you a little peek behind the curtain at this imagination station, we met up with two of the Knerds responsible for Knewton Alta Calculus to get the 411 on their love of Knewton, upcoming trends in education technology, and the key features that make this new Calculus course so impressive.

Andrew Jones Greg Hitt
Andrew Jones is a data scientist and Alta product manager with a Ph.D in Music Theory. From analyzing jazz piano recordings to studying student learning patterns, Andrew focuses his time on using mathematical modeling and machine learning to extract patterns from complex data. The resulting algorithms help power our adaptive engine and provide students with individualized learning experiences to help them master complex subjects like Calculus. We can all thank Andrew for those A’s! Greg Hitt (now in his adult years) is a former calculus instructor turned Knerd, who spends his days developing courseware that meets the challenges he and his students faced day after day in his own classroom. Using that background, he has worked on many of the pedagogical interventions behind the student experience, designing everything with an eye towards the idea of assisting students on their path to mastery – whether that be the highly detailed answer explanations, mapping the relationships between sub-learning objectives, or building interactive graphs to explore and learn. He really does love Calculus that much!


1.   You’ve been working in the Higher Education field for a while now. Give us a little overview of your past experience and why you became a Knerd.

AJ: I did my undergrad work in the Princeton physics department, where I specialized in large, noisy datasets at the intersection of particle physics and cosmology. When wrapping up my senior thesis, I decided I liked the tools more than the subject matter—so I earned a Ph.D in Music Theory from Yale, where I applied similar computational modeling approaches to complex musical datasets. That’s where my interest in machine learning really started. When I started looking for meaningful applications of machine learning on the data science market, Knewton seemed like a great chance to apply the skills I already had, learn a bunch of (k)new ones, and stay close to the classroom. I started on the data science team in summer 2017, during the big run-up to Alta’s commercial launch, and I added a product management role in late 2018.

GH: I worked as a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn, New York, for 6 years. I primarily taught AP Calculus, Physics, and Algebra 2, but at some point or another, I taught every level of math offered. Along with teaching 130 students over 4 different subjects every day, I also built some tooling to help with a schoolwide data initiative. After exams, I could run reports on how my students did on individual learning objectives to help guide them in where they needed to study or what topics I might need to review in my classroom. I could also gather information on how effective my teaching was to improve lesson plans for the following year.

Once I started thinking about using data in this way, and seeing how assessing in a low-stakes way helped students both in terms of focusing their time and also in meta-cognition, I completely shifted my grading schema to a mastery-based classroom. I didn’t penalize students for not getting the content initially but saw testing as a formative experience. If they missed an objective, it informed both myself and them of deficiencies and maybe highlighted prerequisite knowledge gaps that I could address in tutoring during lunch or after school. It really transformed my classroom, but this was a lot of work—so seeing that Knewton was trying to do this exact thing sold me immediately.

2.    Given your history in Higher Education, what do you think makes Knewton Alta different?

AJ: Alta didn’t start from the assumption that a fixed textbook or set of assessment questions should work for everyone. Knewton had been providing personalized, adaptive experiences based on individual student needs for years, but our publishing partners ultimately controlled the pedagogy, user experience, and how our adaptivity fit into their educational products. With Alta, we had the chance to start from scratch and say: if we have this great adaptive engine, what do the learning science and educational data mining literatures tell us would be the most impactful learning experience for students? We came to the conclusion that implementing mastery-based learning in the lowest-cost, most scalable way possible would let us extend the benefits of one-on-one attention and coaching to a huge number of students who otherwise might not have it. Alta’s built on that bedrock: putting achievement within reach for every individual student, especially in classrooms where students come from all kinds of educational and financial backgrounds.

For those heterogeneous classrooms, alta is really the first product to take seriously the idea that you might implement mastery-based learning in a variety of course structures. We have instructors choose what learning objectives students should get great at and by when, and each adaptive assignment starts all students on those target learning objectives. Our proficiency model and recommender then provide as much support as is needed to get students across the finish line as efficiently as possible — whether that’s just some worked answer explanations, or some detailed instruction, or potentially significant prerequisite support, all delivered seamlessly and just-in-time.

3.    Knewton Alta was recently aquired by Wiley, a boutique publisher who has been in the Education Publishing space for quite some time. How has that affected Knewton Alta as a company and the courses you create?

AJ: You say “boutique,” but I was nervous about joining a big publisher! Knewton was like 100 employees for most of my time there. But the results have been great — the Knewton team has remained focused on Alta, and our data science team is starting to expand the reach of our models into other Wiley products, so we’re kind of like an in-house tech company. The cross-pollination has had a big impact; we immediately gained access to a huge amount of high-quality content, and Wiley has been able to start thinking about investing in adaptivity in a totally new way. We think this will speed up the rate and increase the quality with which we can launch new Alta titles.

4.    Knewton Alta Calculus was just launched last week and is the first course coming out after the Wiley acquisition. Can you tell us a little about this course and what makes it special/why people should pay attention?

AJ: The calculus market has been static for a long time—there’s one market-leading textbook that’s been updated many times, but the pedagogy hasn’t really changed. And nobody has been able to come up with a strong adaptive or mastery-based solution in such a complicated subject. Calculus is amazing and elegant and important to a bunch of majors and jobs, but it remains a course where a lot of college students give up on math. We’re excited about Alta Calculus because it’s built to serve everybody and to be capable of more robust, targeted interventions than any previous calculus courseware. By wedding a huge quantity of OER content (most of which is generated in-house thanks to Wiley’s financial support) to these interventions, we’ve built a pedagogical model that we also think will scale to other complex subject areas in the future.

5.    Adaptive technology is a big part of the mastery-based learning system Alta provides. How would you describe the adaptive model that Alta uses?

AJ: Alta’s adaptivity is built on a proficiency model and a recommendations engine. Our proficiency model assesses student knowledge states in real time—after every question a student answers in Alta Calculus, we’re jointly estimating how proficient the student is on the highly granular problem type they answered, on the learning objective more broadly, and on related learning objectives like pre- and post-requisites. Our recommender then makes use of those estimates and our highly parameterized content to choose the best path forward for the student: you can think of it as an encoded pedagogy, making decisions about what kinds of problem, instruction, or remediation would be most impactful at any given time.

6.    Outside of adaptive learning, what are the key features of Alta that you would like instructors to know about?

GH: In my mind, the biggest highlight other than adaptivity is the use of desmos. Desmos as a company has been so focused on great pedagogy from its inception, so being able to harness what they have done to build both assessments and explorations that help students get a more conceptual understanding of topics is something I am very excited about.

7.    And last question. We know you spend a ton of time dedicated to your work, but when you’re not creating adaptive algorithms or programming modules, what do you like to do?

AJ: Well, the music thing never really went away, so I’m an avid record collector and hi-fi enthusiast. My wife and I also have an energetic golden retriever, Lucy, who runs most of my non-work life.

GH: I’m an avid birder [200 species last year!] and have a weird obsession with visiting as many state capitol buildings as I can [just hit 31 with Denver!], so I try to sneak in as many weekend trips as possible to do one or both of those things. My commutes are filled with books and crosswords, and I both play and host trivia.


Want to check out Knewton Alta Calculus first hand? Schedule a demo!