Challenge Turned Opportunity: Using ASSISTments to Increase Engagement

Dotted blue decorative line - ASSISTments Images

It was fall of 2020, without a doubt a challenging time for students, their families, and their teachers. Not only were we going back to school virtually, but we were all learning how to get to know each other, learn, and communicate using various new forms of technology. My district went from using Google Classroom in the spring of 2020 to using Canvas in the fall of 2020, but at least I could still use ASSISTments in this new platform. I was teaching both live virtually via Zoom and using recorded lessons posted to Canvas. I found it incredibly challenging to assess students during this time; all I really had to go on was their participation during Zooms and their responses via ASSISTments. What I came to be reminded of, with the help of one student in particular, was that engagement was still one of the most critical components of teaching and learning, no matter the format. 

I teach both fifth and sixth grade math, but my sixth grade mathematicians are fifth graders in age. I love our problem-based district curriculum materials, Illustrative Mathematics, and fortunately, I am able to use them within ASSISTments (hopefully soon also with my fifth graders). One of my students in my sixth grade math class was struggling in our first unit, Area and Surface Area. Typically, this unit is a supportive place to begin with my sixth grade math class, as it helps students build confidence that they are indeed ready for sixth grade math as a fifth grader. With this particular student, though, struggles were immediate based on his responses in the reports I pulled from ASSISTments after each daily assignment and his lack of participation in our daily online Zoom classes. One benefit of online instruction is flexibility; I was able to plan a time to meet with him individually to build our relationship while addressing his misconceptions and going on a hunt for his strengths. 

Specifically, we went to several of his most recent assignments completed in ASSISTments, Practice Problems and a related Cool Down, and talked through his problem solving processes together. I quickly came to realize after working with him one-on-one that his main area of need was in mis-applying his knowledge of the formula for area of a parallelogram to non-parallelograms without the use of any reasoning strategies. He also was choosing not to show his strategies and writing very generally about how he solved. As a non verbally gifted student who struggled in reading and writing, this combination made sense. We came to his most recently completed Cool Down, and he asked me a question that told me the thinking we had done together was already making a difference - he asked me to reopen the assignment so that he could redo it on his own! This was the best possible outcome. His response showed me that his engagement and motivation were changing, and I suspected that this would result in increased understanding on the Cool Down he was about to redo. 

I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did his redone Cool Down show that he was applying his new favorite strategy of decomposing and rearranging to find area, but he soon became a student who loved to share his thinking in our Zoom classes, especially because he could articulate his ideas verbally without being encumbered by recording in writing.

As we transitioned back to in person learning in our second quarter together and finished our year together, this student never came to love showing his thinking on paper. He did, however, become a leader in our class when we were in need of a non-conventional or invented strategy for solving a particularly challenging problem. The early insights I was able to gain about his strengths and areas of need based on ASSISTments reports proved invaluable in reteaching both of us about becoming an engaged mathematician in any format.

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