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The Web-based ALEKS program offers courses for home-schooled, K-12 and university students and can be incorporated into classroom instruction or used independently. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Parents scrambling to keep kids academically engaged over the summer have a friend in ALEKS. The popular Web-based learning program created by cognitive scientists at UC Irvine hit a milestone this year, with more than 1 million students in kindergarten to college using the tool to fill gaps in their math and science skills.

“There are a lot of reasons a student may struggle in certain subjects, including teacher readiness, textbook inadequacies and reliance on standardized testing,” says Jean-Claude Falmagne, UC Irvine research professor of cognitive sciences as well as founder and chairman of the privately held ALEKS Corp.

“ALEKS addresses each of these concerns. It’s a competent teaching assistant using content written by university faculty and Ph.D.s. Instead of being a standardized, one-size-fits-all test, it assesses precisely each student’s current knowledge state – finding out exactly what they know and, more importantly, what they’re ready to learn.”

Reports from California universities, community colleges and K-12 school districts; inner-city schools in Detroit; and even home-schooling parents in Ohio show improved grades, better knowledge retention and elevated course completion rates with ALEKS.

At Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania State University and many other campuses, it’s used to help provide the baseline knowledge students need for precalculus, college algebra and general chemistry.

The program is also an integral part of UC Irvine’s classroom and online algebra and precalculus courses. Online versions have reached more than 1,000 students through Summer Session and are currently available as MOOCs on Coursera. They receive American Council on Education credit and are being considered for adoption by other universities.

“ALEKS is one of the first and most effective adaptive learning aids for students,” says Gary Matkin, UC Irvine dean of continuing education, distance learning and Summer Session. “We are pleased to be a leader in adaptive learning using ALEKS.”

A cognitive scientist turned mathematician, Falmagne began working on the mathematical foundation of ALEKS – which stands for Assessment & Learning in Knowledge Spaces – in the early 1980s with Jean-Paul Doignon of the Free University of Brussels. Falmagne initiated content development and software programming in 1994 at UC Irvine with support from a large National Science Foundation grant.

Using an initial 25- to 30-question assessment, the program uncovers the exact combination of math or science concepts a student understands. This forms his or her current knowledge state. From there, the program determines student readiness for new concepts and provides a customized learning path. As students master the work, they are reassessed and their routes are remapped.

“By offering the student only the topics he or she is ready to learn, ALEKS builds confidence and momentum,” Falmagne says.

The company utilizes the extensive data it amasses to fine-tune the algorithms underlying the learning paths.

When ALEKS identifies a concept for a student as “ready to learn,” the success rate exceeds 95 percent. Falmagne is using this data to rewrite an algebra textbook more closely aligned with how students learn.

Working with UC Irvine’s Office of Technology Alliances, he received licensing in the late 1990s to develop his adaptive learning program into a multimillion-dollar software company. Based in Irvine, it now employs about 150 mathematicians, engineers and sales personnel – 40 of whom were hired last year – with space for 100 more.

In 2012, the partnership brought $500,000 in royalties to UC Irvine. This year, ALEKS Corp. launched a tablet version so that students can take their learning on the road. In June, McGraw-Hill Education announced that it would acquire the company.

“ALEKS is a wonderful example of the transfer of basic research to solve the high-value problem of enabling strong mathematics and science education that meets students at their current level of knowledge,” says Barbara Dosher, Distinguished Professor of cognitive sciences and former dean of UC Irvine’s School of Social Sciences.

Among ALEKS Corp.’s employees are alumni from UC Irvine’s graduate program in mathematical behavioral sciences and a former chemistry professor who revise and author new content and improve assessment algorithms to keep ALEKS accurate.

“We’ve received very positive feedback over the years, from parents of kids with learning difficulties progressing through the curriculum to adult learners who wish they’d had ALEKS when they were growing up,” says Nicolas Thiery, the company’s chief technology officer, who earned a doctorate in mathematical behavioral sciences at UC Irvine.

“But the best motivation has been to see how ALEKS could be used widely to provide more accurate assessments, since that’s an essential step toward improving learning outcomes.”

Falmagne agrees: “Our approach may go a long way in solving the problems we have in educating our students.”