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Student Centered Learning: Math in the Blended Learning Environment

Posted in Ed Tech on February 5, 2014 by

Here at Knewton we’re dedicated to supporting innovative educators. This post is written by Kaylie Reed. Kaylie was the founding teacher at Acton Academy and helped develop and run their Elementary program in its first four years before leaving the classroom this fall to launch a campaign seeking entrepreneurial educators and parents interested in replicating the Acton Academy model in their communities. She is currently consulting for blended learning programs around the country, including several new Acton Academies slated to open this fall.

At Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, students are thriving in multi-age, self-paced blended learning environments that allow them not only to excel in math, but also develop important non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, independence, goal setting, time management, and self-confidence.

There are three key things to consider when implementing a blended learning program: choosing the right software, creating a culture of accountability, and reimagining the role of teachers and students. I will address each of these individually upcoming posts.

This post will focus on math because a student centered, blended learning program is easiest to implement with math (in part because the software for that subject is most abundant and sophisticated), although it can certainly be leveraged with other subjects such as physics, English, and history.

Choosing the Right Software

I have spent hundreds of hours testing different online math programs, watching students interact with them, talking to students about their experience, and examining outcomes. Based on my experience, there are five key elements to consider when evaluating a program.


New technology allows for a targeted, self-paced curriculum to be delivered to each student in a classroom today. Programs today take into account both student performance on assessments (in terms of correct or incorrect responses) and engagement patterns across course content (amount of time spent on questions, number of tries before a correct answer is given, patterns of incorrect responses, what resources within the program a student turns to for help, etc). In the most successful programs, the number and type of practice problems or instructional assistance given is tailored to each student’s unique set of response behaviors.

When looking for software programs, it is important to select ones that are adaptive — that respond to student behavior and individualize the curriculum for both the immediate and long-term needs of the student. The best adaptive programs determine proficiency at a granular level and have sophisticated adaptivity built on engagement.


Course progression should be based on mastery of material rather than seat time or sheer number of hours spent on material. If a student knows the material, he should move on quickly. On the other hand, if a student has not mastered a concept, he should not move on until he does. Passing scores (which depend on the objectives of the course and other pre-determined goals) can range from 70% to 100%; demonstrated mastery of concepts instead of seat time determines when a student can advance. Finally, built-in review mechanisms that encourage students to constantly spiral back to earlier material can be especially helpful.

For more on this topic, check out 5 Myths about Mastery-Based Learning.

Student Choice (Learner Agency)

A student should always be given some agency in determining what he or she works on next. This helps reduce frustration and creates a sense of voluntary engagement. If the program is adaptive, then both pace and path are individualized. Additional choice, depending on the setup of the classroom and the structure of the overall program, can come from allowing students to choose when and where they do their math practice (more to come on that).

For more on how learner agency relates to engagement, check out this piece on gamified learning and the importance of “unveiling” levels at the right pace.

System of Rewards

Achievement badges, levels, coins, and other rewards can enhance user engagement by providing an extra layer of satisfaction to mastery. An engaging storyline can be especially motivating (particularly when a student gets to choose his avatar) as this tends to add suspense, conflict, and narrative to the learning experience (the human brain is wired to remember stories). Each student responds differently to external motivators, so a program with more than one gamification element can work for a greater number of students. The more intimately the reward system is tied to the actual learning itself (as in the case where rewards are educational in nature) the more effective it will be.

Typically, when a student is working at his own pace, at a targeted level (and with some control over his work conditions as a bonus), the work itself is reinforcing and additional motivators are hardly necessary.

Visible progress

Tangible or visible progress enhances motivation. For this reason, clear graphs and indicators of progress are essential and need to be available to students and teachers at all times.

Teachers can use dashboard progress to pair students with potential mentors when they are struggling, or to offer a student a quick, targeted, tutoring session. Ideally, parents even have a portal where they can check in on their child’s progress.

Other factors

Beyond the essential elements above, the overall quality of the program can be assessed on the following factors:

  • quality of animation and other special video effects

  • sound quality

  • video quality

  • quality of explanations

  • robustness of assessment

A good math curriculum may include multiple software programs that fit the criteria above so that, in addition to the review built into the programs, there is overlapping material in the different programs, which ensures no knowledge gaps.

Because students are always working at their zone of proximal development, they move through the curriculum much more quickly (and completely) than they would if they were receiving instruction designed for an entire class of students with varying levels of understanding. With the targeted individualization that software allows, students can easily work on two or three programs simultaneously.

Check out the second post in this series, Student Centered Learning: Creating a Culture of Accountability.