Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fun Times With ALEKS

Below is a relatively calm and uninteresting rant about ALEKS. To all those poor, huddled, masses who are, with me, subjected to ALEKS' frustrating but probably beneficial system of education, welcome to the bonfire, and may all your answers have the correct number of significant figures.

ALEKS is an online program that helps students improve their math and science skills through the 'practice makes better' method. I have ALEKS work assigned every week or so for Chemistry 142, and while I do think that ALEKS helps me remember and solidify various Chemistry contents, the past three hours I spent ALEKS have been very frustrating, and here's why:

First of all, I'm going about the work the wrong way. My Chem professor and ALEKS evangelist says that ALEKS is meant to be done a little bit every day, rather than *ahem* just the weekend before it's due. I've adopted the at-times-daunting policy that if a piece of homework is worth doing, it's worth doing all at once. This means that I have to juggernaut through all the little annoyances ALEKS puts in place to punish procrastinators. Here are two of the more irritating time-wasters:
Even this far into Chemistry, many problems give data in units that have to be converted before being plugged into whatever equation is being used. I had hoped that, once my basic algebra skills were established, I wouldn't have to go through the same process every time.
In questions that involve molecular interactions, all relevant molar masses are given except the one vital one. Almost without fail, the most difficult-to-calculate molar mass isn't given.

Secondly, it's very time-consuming to enter answers. This isn't really ALEKS' fault, but there's really no quick way to enter information like chemical formulas and equations into a computer. What ALEKS does do is provide large empty charts to be filled out with basic information. While these charts usually aren't difficult at all, getting bored while filling them out can result in slight oversights, and one wrong answer means the entire question is marked wrong and the chart must be re-filled from scratch.

Lastly, ALEKS seems to work on the premise that getting a question wrong means you don't know the science behind it. I believe in the power of practice just as much as the next person, but what I find happening with ALEKS is not a learning process, but me trying to prove to ALEKS that I know what I'm talking about. I do learn some things - today I re-learned the principles of basic equilibrium reactions - but the bulk of my time is spent reading questions, trying to figure out what ALEKS wants me to say, and saying it. Getting a question wrong means you have to complete two more questions to advance, and, most irritating of all, after two consecutive wrong answers (for example, when I learned the hard way that ALEKS treated ICE tables differently from our textbook), ALEKS begins to subtly suggest that you might not have the mental capacity to complete the question and might want to go and play with building blocks or something.

Maybe I just get annoyed when a machine tells me I'm wrong. Or it could be that I dislike the way ALEKS seems to pretend to be a person when it has very little skill with nuances such as rounding. Whatever the case, I have to say it does make me feel better to pinpoint the things I dislike about the program. ALEKS is a workbook that tries to be a teacher as well.


  1. Sonia Dettweiler (Principal, JMD Elementary)March 23, 2014 at 9:00 AM

    I remember you hated "Brain Train" in Kindergarten for many of the same reasons.

    1. It's good to hear I'm at least keeping up continuity.