How ASSISTments Skill Builders Works in My Class (and why it will work for you too)

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Mike Tarka uses Skill Builders to create differentiated homework assignments and assign them individually to meet students at their level. It’s been one of the easiest choices I’ve made to benefit my students.

Mike Tarka is a 6th grade teacher at Raymond E. Shaw Elementary School. He's also an ASSISTments Ambassador.

What if I told you I have all the answers for how teachers can leverage their expertise to serve the students in front of them while simultaneously engaging every student who sits at home learning remotely? Sounds promising, huh? Ok. Maybe I don’t quite have all the answers, but I do have an idea that could help. Well… it’s not even my idea. Like all good teachers, I’ve taken a good thing that someone else created and leveraged it for the benefit of my instructional practice. That idea is assigning Skill Builders through ASSISTments.

I teach sixth grade math and science and have been doing so for twenty-five years.  I was introduced to ASSISTments over 10 years ago when the platform was just beginning to find its legs. At the time, the legacy interface was not very user-friendly (check out the new interface!) and it was more easily navigable to a person with a computer science degree than to a teacher trying to find a reliable and easy-to-use program that would help determine the strengths and weaknesses of their students.  

A colleague of mine, Andrew Burnett, who coincidentally is also an ASSISTments Ambassador, coaxed me to look deeper into a professional development opportunity we had at school. He talked about the promise of being able to build our own content along with a spiraling skills application piece. He took the lead and spent some additional time researching the program. Andrew had the technical background to make sense of the potential this program had. He had even started to code his own problem sets. I tried but quickly realized I would have more success trying to remove the white from rice.  

What is a Skill Builder?

Luckily there were those at WPI with more skill than I working on creating problem sets called Skill Builders. For those unfamiliar with what Skill Builders are, they are assignments that target specific math skills. The purpose of the assignment is for a student to learn mastery of the topic over time. As students complete the Skill Builder, which is done by correctly answering 3 questions in a row on a particular topic, they demonstrate a temporary mastery of the topic. Should a student require some assistance, hints are available to get them started. There are typically at least three hints or scaffolds built into each question.  Any hints requested results in the forfeit of answering three in row correct. If the student is unable to complete the Skill Builder in under 10 questions, the program will stop any further attempts and prompt the student to ‘try again tomorrow.’  

I must admit, students who need to ‘try again tomorrow’ are not fond of long lists building up over time from neglecting their work. I try to keep the students attentive in their upkeep with the assigned Skill Builders, taking them one chunk at a time. 

Reports allow me to reach all students

Reports are readily available to the teacher along the way. More information can be found in some reports than one could possibly need. What I appreciate most are the pieces that indicate time spent on questions, whether students took hints and all answers they submitted. 

I check the reports a day or two after assigning a new batch of material. I look specifically for those students who reach the maximum number of questions and check in with them to see if they are in need of assistance in completing the Skill Builder. Students are not forgotten with reporting.

And with Skill Builders, starting with the simple tasks of assigning a skill, picking a release and due date, and letting the program take over from there was one of the easiest choices I’ve made to benefit my students. It has made a long-lasting impact on my students’ ability to retain content long-term and has helped them grow on their educational journey.  

A sneak preview at my favorite feature

I have been fortunate enough to get to pair Skill Builders with a feature that is still in development for wide release - it’s called ARRS. ARRS stands for Automated Reassessment and Relearning System. With ARRS turned on, a student will receive a reassessment test seven days from the time they finish the original Skill Builder to ensure their understanding of a concept leads to mastery over time. Teachers only need to assign a skill once and the program will take care of the rest. 

One question is randomly selected from the same bank of questions as the original Skill Builder. Should the question be answered correctly, the student will receive another randomly selected question from that bank in fourteen days. This cycle continues with additional tests given twenty-eight and then fifty-six days after the skillbuilder was first completed. 

Should the student make an error during the reassessment testing, the student will be assigned remediation or relearning the skill. Remediation consists of completing the Skill Builder again under the original conditions of answering 3 questions in a row correctly. 

This cycle will continue with each new Skill Builder that is assigned. The results are an ongoing spiral that circles back to skills even though we have moved on to new content, and it is all done without me having to think about it!

Skill Builders are pretty powerful as they are, and ARRS takes them to a whole new level. Look out for this feature!

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