ASSISTments, a free online math teaching tool developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has given teachers the confidence to transition seamlessly between online and in-person classes amidst the uncertainty of instructional environments mid-COVID-19. This flexibility resulted in massive growth during the shift to distance learning this spring, and in big strategic changes for the ASSISTments team in order to best support teachers and students in all learning environments as they go back to school this fall.
Developed by husband-and-wife team computer science professor Neil Heffernan and Cristina Heffernan, the free tool allows teachers to assign math problem sets online to their classes, giving students instant feedback as they complete assignments and providing teachers with actionable data to inform instruction. Teachers across the U.S. are using the tool to continue high quality instruction with their classes whether their students are in the classroom or at home.
Since the shift to distance learning began in March more than 25,000 teacher from all 50 states and internationally have signed up for ASSISTments accounts. The tool is primarily used by middle school math teachers and students, but has seen growing usage across all grade-levels due to its library of common grades 1-12 curricula that are already part of many teachers’ existing classroom practices.
“It seemed clear that teachers would need some extra help to make it through school closures,” says Heffernan. “We built ASSISTments more than fifteen years ago as a simple platform to help teachers deliver feedback to their students, and are so proud of its recent growth into new classrooms across the country.” Given concerns about learning loss and resource deprivation in many communities across the US, ASSISTments - a free tool - has the power to make an even greater impact and support differentiation. An independent study conducted by SRI International and funded by the Institute for Education Sciences found that ASSISTments contributed to lowering the achievement gap.
In direct response to the new needs of teacher users, the WPI team has revamped its website and developed resources to help teachers and students adjust to new learning environments and connect with fellow teachers around common problems of practice. The team developed Distance Learning resources in their Help Center, hosts weekly webinars for new and experienced ASSISTments users, and partnered with curriculum publishers OpenUpResources and Kendall Hunt to hold joint webinars. In addition to its live virtual programming, the team has developed tutorials and video resources that can be accessed by teachers or students at any time on their YouTube channel or in their Webinar Library. The new Teacher Corner on the ASSISTments website promotes teacher-to-teacher sharing of best practices and classroom artifacts.
Teachers like ASSISTments Ambassador Palmina Griffin of Southborough, MA have been using the tool to stay connected to students during school closures. Griffin has made ASSISTments an integral part of her lesson planning, assigning problem sets that connect to her unit review packets and daily assignments. She encourages her students to do their work with paper and pencil and then enter their answers into ASSISTments to receive quick feedback.
ASSISTments is one of the many tools in Ms. Griffin’s toolbox, and she often uses ASSISTments in conjunction with other online resources and communication platforms. “Students appreciate knowing if they are on track or if they may need additional support to understand the content they are exploring remotely,” she says. “I often get an immediate email from a student that they need assistance or understand their misconception in a problem set,” she says.
Heffernan anticipates the continued growth of the ASSISTments project at WPI, especially due to the recent launch of its integration with the Canvas Learning Management System and new features currently in development. Teachers, including Ms. Griffin, will be able to connect ASSISTments into Canvas, streamlining their homework assignment and scoring process. ASSISTments’s integrations with Google Classroom and Canvas, two of the most widely used learning management systems, will allow ASSISTments to impact the classrooms of many new teachers and students across the US.
The growth of the ASSISTments project at WPI is due in part supported by an $8 million grant awarded to WPI from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education, Innovation and Research (EIR) Program grant to grow and expand ASSISTments. The platform will continue to scale to support math learning during both Distance Learning and as teachers and students re-enter classrooms.