Knerd Story – Wheeler Conover, SE Kentucky Community College

Wheeler Conover
SE Kentucky Community college

What courses do you teach?

All chemistry from survey of general organic, biological chemistry all the way up to organic chemistry and also classic biochemistry.

How long have you been using Alta?

Two-three years.

Why did you start using Alta?

Someone from Knewton gave a talk to the chemists in the KY community and technical college system and I thought it sounded like a winner! So I decided to give it a try.

What do you like about Alta?

It encourages you to be wrong. It doesn’t penalize you for the wrong answer. It just says keep working at it, and wait until you master the material. In Kentucky, for close to 15 years, we have had a series of competency based learning classes called learn on demand (LOD). And we have used software in those classes where students keep working on the answer until they get it right.  I see Alta as a natural extension of LOD competency based learning.

How do you use Alta?

PuzzleHomework is 30% of the grade. My theory is that most learning takes place at home. And so if I’m going to have students do work at home and work hard on it, it’s got to be worth their time. When I first started out 25 years ago, homework was optional. That didn’t take long for me to change. I upped it to 10%. But then I also have the philosophy that if they’re not going to do it, I’m going to make them pay. Now I’m going to make them pay hard. And so now with it being 30%, if students choose not to do their homework, they are going to have a reckoning, as we say in Appalachia, they’re going to have a “come to Jesus” moment if they don’t do their homework.

Sometimes I open it (the homework) back up and students can work on it until they get it, but I don’t always let them do late assignments.

Do you get feedback from students?

I have students who say that it’s different than what they’ve done before. And they appreciate the fact that they can learn the material instead of being punished for not learning it.

Do students understand the adaptive nature of the product?

No, not at this point because there are too immersed in a system where it is right versus wrong and they just see that I’m different. And not only do they see I’m a different instructor because I’ve been at this for so long and I try to stay aware of what goes on around me in education, I’m also not the type of person who pulls out lecture notes from 40 years ago and gives my students the same class that their parents had. So they see I’m different and may not be able to distinguish that from the fact that they are using an adaptive product.

Do you create exams and quizzes in Alta?

It depends. I’ve been letting Knewton Alta do most of the exam creation. When we were meeting in-person, I was creating exams myself. But I would pull out questions from Knewton Alta and put them into an exam. Even now, I’m giving a weekly quiz (for each of eight weeks), I have to go in and create questions. I do find some gaps in the coverage of the question banks and so I need to fill them in.

What do students struggle with the most?

Everything. Their biggest struggle is not necessarily with the material. It’s the fact that they’re afraid to get something wrong. They are afraid they will lose their precious 4.0 GPA. They will not make a high grade on an exam and they don’t want understand that 85% is an A. That 85.1% and 99.9% is the same grade. That clouds everything they encounter. They are afraid of making a mistake.

They also don’t see the amount of time that it really takes to put in to learning the material.  Sure, they can go look it up on Quizlet, or Course Hero. So their reasoning skills. Number one are short at this point, but then number two, I have to remember that this may be the first time that they’ve seen the material and it is up to me to help them reason through their problems. It’s not necessarily the material per se, it’s the process of learning.

For example, in my current group, when creating the weekly exam, there was one concept that I had to give them three times, on three straight exams. When I went in and I checked the homework, they were doing the homework, but when it came time to write it back on the exam, they couldn’t do it. So I just had to keep after them until I was satisfied that at least the majority of them knew. Sometimes the repetition is not there—and students can mistake recognition for learning.

I also throw up the Knewton Alta to them every week. I make it available to every week and they don’t use it. And I also begin to wonder, is that a function of the fact that they worked on the concepts already in their homework, got 100% mastery and then they don’t feel that they need to go back and review the material a few days later.

Room for improvement

There are two things:

  1. I wish Knewton Alta would update their question banks. And like I said, still in some of the gaps, make some of the material that we see in match up with what you would normally see in a typical class.
  2. There is an awful lot of emphasis on minutiae in homework than I think that it really needs.

But overall, I think the system is geared more for conceptual learning. It deemphasizes numerical calculations and lends itself toward conceptual learning. And since it’s taken me that long to figure out which I didn’t really realize this until earlier this year that we say, “I don’t care. If you can punch numbers into a calculator, if you’re punching a bunch of numbers into a calculator and you don’t know what you’re doing, then what good is it?”

So I like the fact that it does lean towards the conceptual side of learning, but then again, where the gaps would come in is if they needed to take exams such as the MCAT or PCAT, and they need to learn things that they have not necessarily even seen the first time, there’s a little bit of a disconnect there.

I think sometimes there is too much detail on some things and not enough on others. When I go into the test bank, I can go into the questions and see nine of one question then nothing on another.

Knerd Story – Hadas Moshonov-Cohavi, Avila University

Hadas Moshonov-Cohavi
Avila University

How long have you been using Knewton Alta?

I’ve been using Alta since fall 2018 and we’ve seen great results with it. Most students that take the course are passing the first time through.

What classes are you teaching?

I have my college algebra class, statistics, discrete math and I’m also teaching the corequisite course that goes with college algebra.

We also have one course that’s called the application of college math. We also use Knewton Alta in that course. Someone else is teaching it, but students from that course are also showing up in corequisite.

Why did you start using Knewton Alta?

When I started my position, it was the first year that we changed our math model offering. We discarded the beginning algebra, intermediate algebra and that old fashioned sequence, and we went with one really basic course which is math literacy.

Man with headphonesThe main math course was the corequisite course and this was the first year that we offered it. It was my first year, and I was using My Math Lab because I thought that it offered adaptive assignments. Which turned out to be not true, so I had to choose questions myself. What I was really hoping for was a platform that will fill in gaps in students’ knowledge. I met with the Knewton Alta representative, we went through all of the features, and I just fell in love with the product.

I fell in love with a few things:

First of all, the fact that it’s mastery-based, so I don’t really have to choose anything, I can adjust objectives, and then the system will populate the right questions.

I liked the fact that it really promotes growth mindset. It really gives students the instructions, the example, the videos, everything that they need to fill out their knowledge.

And the fact that it’s individually adaptive so that every student has their own personalized process of learning in the course. So, I just fell in love with those things.

Do you get feedback from students?

My students love it! I have stronger students and also weaker students that just keep telling me “I love how Knewton Alta works!” And one student even told me that she has her own approach. She said that she’ll start a problem, and then get it wrong intentionally, so she can see the answer explanation and learn that way.

All throughout this semester I really don’t get any complaints. The only thing some students say and it’s something those students who don’t want to put in the time, they will complain that they got some stuff wrong, they had more questions, and you know, the assignments took longer.

How do you implement Knewton Alta?

I create adaptive assignments in Knewton Alta, there are different numbers depending on the topic but it’s between two and five in a week. They are worth 30% of their grade. Each assignment is targeting a specific topic with the objectives that are related to it. Students have to do it and complete it at 100%.

So, for example, this week we were solving systems of equations. And so, there is a linear systems or three equations. That’s one homework assignment. And then the second one is solving linear systems using matrices and the other a couple of objectives and sub objectives in each assignment.

I use Knewton Alta a lot during my lab course which is the corequisite course. This is the course that students take if they don’t have a high placement test score to go straight into college algebra, or they entered the school as “test optional” or things like that. That first year it was bad, and I realized I needed to do something different. So, the students started using Knewton Alta. The main focus was for students to come to the lab and work on their homework for their math course and I could help them when they needed it.

When we were in class together, I could walk around and look at the students’ screens as see how they were doing. But when we moved online, now students are working on Zoom. I go to their account and see if they’re active, what homework they are working on, how late they are. Sometimes I see a student who is struggling so I can reach out and offer extra help. I use Knewton Alta intensely. And I really appreciate all the information that it provides such as the last time the student was logged in, and how long they worked on each assignment. It’s very helpful.

I have students who show up in lab and tell me they’re working on this week’s homework in math. Then I go into Knewton Alta, and I see that they’re not active!

I also have some assignments that I know will require a little bit of time to do actually write down the questions and solve them. And I look at the time it takes students to solve. And I can see some students only taking five minutes to do something that should take 20 minutes. It alerts me to the fact that maybe they’re using apps to solve their problems. I bring that up in the class and make sure students understand that using the shortcut is actually hurting them and it will actually impact them in a negative way—in the long run.

What kind of impact has Knewton Alta had on student outcomes?

Very positive impact in a few ways. First, I see students who tell me at the beginning they are not good at math, or that math is really challenging for them. And then I see them actually working through the homework and getting good grades and completing the course successfully.

It’s not just my teaching, it’s the whole package that I provide as an instructor and Knewton Alta is a big part of it. I collected data since I started using Knewton Alta – I’ve created a data set that collects all the lab students and grades and their current GPA. And also, the subcategory of grades in the lab, which is basically 50% of the grade in their lab course (the corequisite) is to complete their weekly homework on time.

So, I’m looking at correlations and then I have also a historical data set I’m going to look at. But I’m in the process. I also want to get some numbers out of it, both for the administration here and also for myself for my own research.

How important is the adaptive nature of Knewton Alta?

Very! The fact that Knewton Alta identifies the knowledge gaps, and every student can work at their own level is really important.

Knerd Story – Josh Guillemette, Valencia College

Josh Guillemette
Statistical Methods and Math
Valencia College

How long have you been using Knewton Alta?

Five years.

How are you teaching?

I teach in all modalities. Fully online and then what we call blended learning, where we meet face-to-face once a week, and the rest of the instruction is online. It’s almost like flipped. Most of the instruction is online, and then when students come to me, I just answer their questions and help them with their homework and send them off again unstuck.

And then I actually do have one class that’s fully face-to-face. We meet twice a week, all six of the students in the class because of social distancing.

Why did you start using Knewton Alta?

My Wiley rep stopped by my office and told me about the product. She explained it was adaptive and took students’ answers and figures out where they’re at and guides them along the path.

The price ($44) was appealing too. At the time we were using Pearson’s My Math Lab (MML), and a lot of people still use it. It’s around $104 at the bookstore. So, it’s a difference of $60. I thought if Knewton Alta is even half as good, it’s worth checking out. So, I got permission to do a pilot and I got four other faculty members to do it with me.

Two of us had half of our classes use Pearson, and half of them used Knewton Alta. And then I had two more Pearson, but they gave the same final, and then I had another person doing all Knewton Alta. So, there was quite a smattering of implementations, and we were able to collect and analyze some data.

For first-year statistics, we use the CAOS (Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), which is a peer-reviewed statistical reasoning instrument for the final. I did an analysis and, obviously, the teaching made the most difference. But they were all really good instructors, so there was only a little difference. There wasn’t really much difference, statistically, between what the Knewton Alta folks did and the Pearson folks did. And Knewton Alta was $60 less. I think what I would say now is that because it was a pilot, we didn’t really understand fully how to implement Knewton Alta, and if we did it again the results would probably be different.

Why do I keep using it?

The cost was a lot less, and the students seem to be a lot happier. And, again, just using it has been a really positive experience.

I get unsolicited happy notes from students who are using the Knewton Alta. They’ll say things like, “Thank you so much. The adaptive thing takes a little bit of getting used to, but I really felt like it helped my learning and I really learned stuff. And the system is really good.

I never get that from MML. If I do get any comments about MML it’s usually, “It’s broken, help me fix it!” And so that’s been frustrating. Over the last couple of years (I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, or scaling, or what has happened) it just seems like their MML infrastructure hasn’t really kept up.

They seem to have a lot more technical difficulties, and I don’t have the same issues with Knewton Alta.

Student Feedback

We use a lot of MML in the math department, which means some students come in to my class with a MML background or mindset. They think, “I do the problems. I get them, it checks a box. I’m done. It’s 20 problems. That’s it.

Over the years I’ve been using Knewton Alta, I’ve gotten a lot better at explaining how it works to the students. I explain…that Knewton Alta is a little bit different. It adapts to the information that you give it. And now that I explain things, I don’t get as many questions or students complaining. If I do have a student who seems to be a little frustrated, it tends to be because they don’t know how many questions there are when they go into the system. And I always tell them there’s a recommended range up in the corner, and most of the time it’s 8 to 12.

Man at computerAnd I tell them if you go past 24 questions, you need to get a tutor, reach out to me, do something— because you don’t want to just spin your wheels. And most of them don’t. I get a lot of positive feedback, and what they say mostly is, “I really feel like I learned the material.”

One of the other things that I like, and I think students like it too, is the number of questions in Knewton Alta. In MML, you can put a review in there, but there are only so many questions, and then the review is over. But the review center in Knewton Alta is infinite, it keeps pulling questions from the test pool over and over again, forever. You can practice for as long as you want.

Students will ask when they should stop. I tell them, “When you’re getting 80% of the questions correct, then take the exam, take the certification. But if you’re not getting 80% correct, then you’re not ready and you need to keep going.” And I think students really like that aspect as well. And maybe that fits into the “I really have to learn it” mindset, as opposed to just figure out what the question is asking, check the right box, and move on.

How do you implement Knewton Alta?

I try to have students do something every day. So, there’s a due date and typically they’ll do three Knewton Alta assignments a week, sometimes two if they’re a little harder or longer. And then the week when we’re doing means, standard deviations, and Z scores, because it’s really just super basic calculations, they do four.

There is some level of instruction that I give them before they get started, whether it be a video or a Canvas page (which includes some classroom notes). I have 98 videos I’ve made for the stats class, and I can put a video in front of each of the lessons.

Students watch those things and then they’ll do the lesson. And then if they miss three or four questions in a row, it forces you to do the instruction again in Knewton Alta. If a student is struggling, I’ll remind them about the review instruction button. I tell them it might give them a slightly different point of view from what I’ve done in class, which might be helpful. And I know that Knewton Alta has made a change so now you can force the instruction first, before they get started. I don’t know how effective that is for most of my students. I think the original thought process behind how they set up Knewton Alta was the just-in-time instruction. Students typically dive in, get stuck and then try to figure it out.

So, I structured the class like that. Like, “Here’s some instruction. Here’s the homework. Go.”

I’ll get some students who will watch every minute of video twice, take lots of notes and then do the homework. But that’s the exception. The bell curve, the 68% in the middle, they’re just jumping in and when they get stuck, then they go back and read stuff until they feel like they’re not stuck. And then they’ll get stuck again. And then they’ll watch something. They go to, they get stuck, and it just I think that works for a lot of students.

In my math liberal arts class, I have fewer videos. And so I’m wondering about turning on the instruction beforehand for places where I haven’t made enough videos yet. So, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about so I’m glad that feature is there, but the original way that they set it up, like four years ago, I think that works for most students. And then the fact that it forces them to review instruction when they get four questions in a row wrong. Students need somebody to say, “Hey, this is how you’re supposed to do it!” And I think the students appreciate that because they’re not spinning their wheels forever.

I think that at the end of the day, you just have to meet students where they are. A lot of students just want to jump in. And so whether that’s good for them or not, I think you have to let them do it and then have a safety net underneath them.

Students come in at different levels. A lot of the students have never had stats, but then I have students who have had AP stats and they may remember some of that. So, they blow through the first module pretty easily. And there are students who are taking business calculus and their quantitative reasoning is at a level where it’s pretty quick for them to catch onto stuff. So, they don’t really struggle. And so for them, certainly not having to watch everything and read everything is helpful.

Is the adaptive nature of the program important to you?

Yes. Before the pandemic, they had a real-life Knerd camp up at New York. I got to go up there and talk to the data scientists about how the adaptive algorithm works, how they tried to make sure it never becomes a black box, and that there’s a person who has their hand on the wheel a little bit.

And it was a really good talk for me to understand how the algorithm works for the students. And it’s a big appeal for me. I really want the students to learn the material and develop some proficiency as opposed to “Do 20 problems, hit submit, and get 10 out of 10.” I really appreciate that aspect of Knewton Alta.

We’re allowed to adopt two textbooks for any one course on our campus. What initially drove the adoption of Knewton Alta as the second resource for statistics was the cost. And I think, being an advocate for it, that was a big driver. I think secondarily, the adaptive learning and the fact that it’s good software.

The Knewton Alta statistics course uses the Open Stax book. I make available on Canvas the PDF for that OpenStax book. But most of the students don’t read it. I have this really funny anecdote that I think summarizes textbooks for students. I asked a group of stat students in face-to-face class, “When do you read the stats book?” And this girl (who felt really comfortable) said, “When the professor sucks!”

I think that sums up the feeling of lots of students. If they don’t understand how the professor is teaching, that’s when they go to the textbook.

Most students would rather watch a video, read a short piece in Canvas, and try the homework, as opposed to read a chapter in a math textbook and try to follow that. And some of the textbooks are written really well, but still students’ level of motivation for reading is pretty low. But with the videos and the short bite-sized Canvas pages, they can read something, do an example, watch a video, solve a problem. That speaks to how millennials want to learn, expect to learn, how they learn.

That’s what they expect. And so that’s how I try to set it up. Knewton Alta does a pretty good job with that and there are a lot of videos and other resources. And the instruction that I’ve seen is pretty bite-sized.

Room for Improvement

My one “sad face” comment is that when I do the assessment, especially in this statistics class, a lot of the questions are still static. They’re not algorithmically generated. There are only a few of each learning objective to pick from. And if wanted to let students redo it, or if you wanted to pool questions, it just makes it a little harder. And so that is the one thing that is easier in MML; I can just grab a question from a learning objective, see the little red numbers that I know that are going to change for every single student, and I have less of a worry about academic integrity, students Googling stuff, that kind of thing. And in an age where I can do much less proctoring with my online students, that becomes a little bit bigger of a concern. It is the one thing that would make my life easier. Literally the only thing that they don’t do.

Knerd Story – Dina Yagodich, Frederick Community College

Dina Yagodich
Mathematics & Statistics
Frederick Community College

How long have you been using Knewton Alta?

I’ve been using it since fall 2019.

Why did you start using Knewton Alta?

I was teaching statistics for the first time. Two of my colleagues had started using Knewton Alta so I copied their course over and really liked the way it worked. In statistics we have students coming in at very different levels, and Knewton Alta helps get everybody to the same level.

For some of our classes we’ve also had experience using Aleks, which is also adaptive. But Aleks starts by assuming you’re at the bottom, and Knewton Alta starts by assuming you’re at a higher level.  A lot of students already had statistics in high school, so using Knewton Alta made the homework less frustrating for them because they can get through it pretty quickly, but students still get what they want or what they need.

Logo Description automatically generatedWe decided in the spring 2020 semester that everybody was going to use Knewton Alta in fall 2020. We had a handful of instructors using it as a pilot, and we were in the process of training everybody, when COVID hit. Looking back, it probably couldn’t have happened at a better point because Knewton Alta gave students more interactive help since nobody was in the classroom for the rest of the spring 2020 semester. And we had very few classes face-to-face in the fall of 2020, so it worked out well. And even our adjunct faculty didn’t have too much trouble getting used to it.
Now we’re using it mostly in college algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus one (as well as the liberal arts math class).

We’re able to come up with standard courses that everybody can just use. Some of us integrate Knewton Alta with Blackboard, some don’t. So far, we’re finding Alta is working very well.  It’s kind of shocking in two years to see how fast you can switch. A lot of it is cost driven. We’ve been trying to do open source, but for the homework piece it just wasn’t there for college algebra, statistics, the pre-calculus. So, we’re trying to go to the OpenStax textbook along with Knewton for homework.

Another thing we like about Alta, or Wiley, is that they have a policy that you have access until you pass. So, if somebody fails the class, all we have to do is ask our rep for new code, so that student doesn’t have to purchase the software again. That’s a big deal because not all of our students are successful.

How important is the adaptive nature of Knewton Alta in terms of influencing your decision to use it?

Very important for stats and pre-calculus because we know our students come in with such different prerequisite skills and an adaptive homework system lets students who know the stuff not spend too much time, and it allows students who really need extra time to get more homework. The big issue for all of us (me included) was getting rid of the control of which questions were asked. But I got over it quickly. So, I take control of my paper and pencil quizzes and my exams. I don’t use Knewton Alta for exams, but a lot of instructors use Alta for all the pieces.

I found that there was a stronger correlation between homework scores and exam scores with adaptive homework than there was with a non-adaptive system.

There are pieces of it that are still not perfect. But overall, I think it’s a better experience for students. It meets there where they’re at.

Student Feedback

After an exam, I have students answer anonymous survey questions. One of the questions was: “how has your experience with Knewton Alta, did it help you prepare for the test?”
Here are some of the student responses (from pre-calculus):

Then somebody else who used it last semester:

Calculus one students:

The class where we’re noticing the most issues is college algebra and supporting people coming in at the algebra one level.

In the spring (2022) we are going to try one class taught with Knewton Alta and a class taught with Aleks, because with that, starting at the top might not be the right mix for that specific class.

How do you support students using Knewton Alta?

We’re really good with explaining how to do the homework now. The first day of class, I tell them if you use this like normal homework where you just guess to try to see what the answer is, and then figure out what the answer is. You will fall into a pit of despair, and I don’t want that!

We make sure students know that instead, they should click on instruction when they need some help and that they don’t get penalized for doing that. So as long as the instructor really is clear about that, I think usually students quickly get the hang of how to use this software.

There are a couple kinds of questions where students have frustrations, but overall, I think students are getting good value for their money.

It can take a while to get some of the adjunct professors used to Knewton Alta homework. Some of them were concerned that Alta let students get to 100%, because they’re used to students getting around 87% on the homework. And we said yes, we actually want them to get to 100% mastery because then you will find that their test scores are also very good. The students who do it (the homework) are going to get 100% and you’re going to see that understanding carry through on exam.

When I look at student usage in Knewton Alta I look at the hours that they’re spending on homework and make sure that it’s a reasonable amount. If I see somebody who’s spending way too much time that’s when I’ll jump in. Or if somebody is zipping through them too quickly, I can ask them if they are looking things up to help them? Because that’s not going to work for exams!

How are you implementing Knewton Alta?

I have homework which opens on Saturday and is due every Friday. On Tuesday. I have paper and pencil quizzes based on the previous week’s material. I usually make the quizzes very tough because we spend the class period before going over any questions students have. So, my quizzes aren’t so much an assessment as they are a way of putting together all the different topics from the previous week. And students can see the kinds of formatting of questions that I’m going to ask on my exam.

The exams are paper, pencil, and written similarly to the quizzes. But they’re all based on the Knewton Alta homework. So, I go through Knewton Alta, before I write the test, to make sure I’m using similar vocabulary. The point of me asking students to do homework is so they do well on the assessments, not just to improve their grade.

Especially at the beginning of the semester, if people haven’t gotten to 100% in first week, I email them and let them know I extended their homework deadline an extra day. I let students know I want them to get to 100%. If somebody worked on the homework past due date and I can see that, I change the due date, so it matches their mastery.

So, a lot of my students get 100% on homework. I used to make homework worth 10%, now make it 30%. If I was back in a face-to-face classroom, I would probably make it 20%. I try to spread out the grade, so it’s not so test heavy. We don’t proctor our exams. And I figure if somebody who’s going to cheat with their way through the class, they’d have to pay somebody a lot of money to do all the Knewton Alta homework!

As the semester goes on, sometimes people only get to 87% mastery but that’s what is recorded. So over Thanksgiving, I’ll probably open up all the homework again and say, you can go back and improve your score on any of the sections to help students get ready for the final. Some will do that—although usually the ones who don’t need it, but I open it up to everyone.

Other feedback

One thing that could be improved is that it’s not super easy for me to hand off a class ‘as-is’ to an adjunct. We have gone through all the instruction for all the different objectives and copied all of the video links and embedded them into our Blackboard course. There’s a list of videos that students can watch ahead of time which helps, but it doesn’t help instructors to better know what’s going on and also to get a feel for what their students are seeing. Before, we could just look at the textbook and flip through it, but that doesn’t work anymore. Which is better for students, but instructors need more support.

So that’s the piece I think Wiley needs to improve on to make it easier for us to assign this to adjunct faculty without doing the prep work that we had to do.

They also have a lot of supplemental worksheets and PowerPoint slides, which I always give my students. Some love doing worksheets for extra practice, but it’s not easy to download them. They’re in different places and it’s not intuitive to just jump in and find them.

How is course content delivered?

I’m teaching a structured remote class, so I teach it more as a flipped classroom. I’ve taught calculus one before online, so I have my own calculus videos, which are specifically aligned to the textbook. So, students have my videos, my class notes, the OpenStax textbook, which they can link to online, or they can buy it for $26.

During my synchronous remote time we go over quiz questions, or if students have questions on homework. If I have notice in Knewton Alta that students are struggling on a topic, I’ll pull up those kinds of questions and we can do them together as a class. We’re finding at the community college that for many students structured remote is exactly what they need. They don’t want purely online, because they want some time when they know they have a professor in front of them.

Have you looked at relationship between Knewton Alta and grades?

I haven’t taught pre-calc in both formats. This semester, I’m going to compare how my Calc one students did in the Pearson homework and their grades, and then this semester with my Knewton Alta homework and their test grades.

So, I’m going to do a correlation to see if there is a stronger correlation between those two, because they would both be my classes. It will be nice to be able to compare two different classes and two different semesters with everything the same, except for the homework system.

What’s New in Knewton Alta – May 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.

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 May. If you haven’t looked at Knewton Alta in a while, you’re missing something special.

Improved Student Context and Visibility into Assignment History

This update will help students (and instructors) to better understand their performance on an adaptive assignment and path to mastery, while providing transparency into the type of work that has been completed.

Learn more on how instructors can monitor student progress here.

Learn more about how students can track their own progress here.

Improved Course Copy Functionality

Getting started is now easier than ever!

Our team has been head-down looking for opportunities to make improvements to the course building experience in preparation for Fall. A number of usability improvements have shipped in the past month and we’re topping it off with a boost to copying courses. When copying a Knewton Alta course, instructors now have more options to configure their new course such as setting your institution or changing the dates as they are creating it so you can hit the ground running.

Doubling Down on Grading Accuracy!

A large percentage of Knewton Alta questions are free response, especially in our math courses, and we’ve just released a new update to our answer parsing service to provide better symbolic equivalence checking.

Students submit answers in a variety of complex — but equivalent — formats, and our new parsing engine leverages the active development community around sympy, a python-based computer algebra system, to better catch tricky cases where complex student answers may not appear to match the format that a subject matter expert would use.

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

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.

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!

A Message from Wiley

Greetings from Wiley!

I want to personally express my excitement for Wiley’s acquisition of Knewton, which I will be leading.

Let me reassure you that we are integrating Knewton into our Wiley education business and remain 100% committed to you and your students. We will continue  to support Knewton’s Alta and enterprise solutions fully. In fact, we plan to expand the Alta catalog to support more courses, and continue to invest in the platform as well.

It’s important you hear this directly from me – your prices will not change. You will also continue to receive the excellent support you’ve grown accustomed to from Knewton, with additional support from our Wiley team!

Why are we so excited about the Knewton acquisition?

We thank you for your continued support and look forward to becoming part of the Knerd community.

Renée Altier
Vice President and General Manager, Digital Education

Saving Money with Beautiful Soup and Hashing

Back in the summer of 2017, Knewton’s alta images had an expensive problem. Whether the images were of parabolas, molecules, or supply and demand curves, they were all missing two important things: alt text and long descriptions.

Why do our images need alt text and long descriptions?

As part of being ADA Compliant, alta’s images need alt text and long descriptions to make the images accessible to screen readers. This is important so that our blind or visually impaired students can use assistive technology like screen readers to interact with our visual content.

An accessible image needs alternative text (alt text) and possibly also a long description, which the screen reader can read out to the user. Alternative text is typically brief (we limit ours to 255 characters) and should always be included on accessible images. Long descriptions are used to describe more complex images, like a detailed diagram.

Alt text and long descriptions are added to images via HTML attributes. Here’s an example image:

Fluffy gray cat belonging to a coworker.

Let’s say that the HTML tag for this image is:

<img src="cat.jpg" alt="Fluffy gray cat" longdesc="cat.html"/>

By including alt and longdesc attributes in the image tag, screen readers can read out “Fluffy gray cat” and the contents of cat.html to the user.

The idea is that a visually impaired student can get all the information they need about an image via its alt text and long description. Take this image for example:

This figure shows two curves. The first curve is marked in blue and passes through the points (negative 1, 2), (0, 1), and (1, 1 over 2). The second curve is marked in red and passes through the points (negative 1, 3), (0, 1), and (1, 1 over 3). Attribution: Image by OpenStax Intermediate Algebra is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Download for free here.

This image’s alt text is very specific:

This figure shows two curves. The first curve is marked in blue and passes through the points (negative 1, 2), (0, 1), and (1, 1 over 2). The second curve is marked in red and passes through the points (negative 1, 3), (0, 1), and (1, 1 over 3).

(Note: Due to limitations there are no alt text and long descriptions for images in this blog post, but we’ve included image captions as an alternative for screen readers.)

Unsurprisingly, writing alt text and long descriptions for thousands of images gets expensive fast. If there were only a way for us to not start from scratch…

Scrape OpenStax, save money

A good chunk of Knewton’s content is curated from the open source OpenStax textbooks.

Greg, our Senior Manager of Content, was staring at OpenStax textbooks online — as senior managers of content are wont to do — when it hit him: OpenStax includes alt text with their images. We could scrape out alt text from OpenStax and match them with the images used in our courses! To Greg, this sounded like an ideal Hack Day project.

Knewton holds “Hack Days” a few times a year, in which Knerds (the Knewton employees) get to work on whatever project we wanted. For the August 2017 Hack Day, Greg and I teamed up to make his OpenStax-scraping, money-saving dream happen. Our solution had two steps:

  1. Scrape OpenStax textbooks for images and their associated alt text.
  2. Associate the scraped alt text with their images in our content management system’s database.

Finding images with Beautiful Soup

Conveniently, each OpenStax textbook has a downloadable zip, containing all of the textbook’s HTML and image files.

I wrote a Python script to walk through all the directories of the unzipped book, looking for HTML files. Then it became a straightforward application of Beautiful Soup, a popular Python HTML parser.

>>> import codecs
>>> from bs4 import BeautifulSoup
# file_path is an HTML file's path
>>> page =, 'r', 'utf-8')
>>> soup = BeautifulSoup(, 'html.parser')
>>> image_tags = soup.find_all('img')

Notice how simple it is to find all img tags. Once I got the HTML content, I just needed two lines:

  1. Create a “soup” using the HTML.
  2. Use the soup’s find_all method.

For each tag in image_tags, Beautiful Soup makes it easy to extract the altand src attributes.

>>> tag
<img alt="Cute puppy" src="puppy.jpg"/>
>>> tag['alt']
'Cute puppy'
>>> tag['src']

The alt attribute contains, well, the alt text. The src attribute contains the file path to the image, which will be used in the next section.

Matching up images with hashing

Now that I have scraped all the alt text in an OpenStax book, I need to match them up with images in our content management system (CMS). This is where hashing comes in: two identical images have the same hash, while two different images have different hashes. If an alt text’s corresponding OpenStax image has a hash that matches the hash of an image in our CMS, then we can apply that alt text to that image in the CMS.

In Python, hashing an image is a matter of using the image’s file path (which was scraped with Beautiful Soup) to read the image’s bytes, and then feeding the bytes into one of Python’s built-in hashing algorithms.

>>> import hashlib
>>> with open(image_path, 'rb') as image:
...     image_bytes =
>>> hashlib.sha1(image_bytes).hexdigest()

That hash there is of this image below. Try hashing it yourself with the same hashing algorithm and you should see the same result. (This is assuming that the image’s compression has not changed since this post’s publishing.)

Cartoon illustration of a laptop.

What about the long descriptions?

You’ll notice that I glossed over long descriptions in the last few sections. Did we scrape for that at all? Yes and no. OpenStax image tags do not have longdesc attributes. However, we did end up repurposing many OpenStax alt texts as long descriptions because they were so detailed and, well, long.

We also did not use every OpenStax alt text verbatim, as our team of subject matter experts sometimes improved upon them or shortened them to fit within our 255 character limit.

How much money did we save?

We haven’t calculated exactly how much money we saved (we’ve been busy building out alta instead 😉). But if we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation:

Therefore, thousands of images times tens of dollars per image equals tens of thousands of dollars saved! Not too shabby for a hack day project that I coded in a day.