Math learning dramatically declined during the pandemic as students experienced months of disjointed remote education. As schools returned to in-person instruction, it became clear many students needed extra support rebuilding foundational math skills.
In response, we rebuilt and relaunched Usable Math - an open online math tutoring system to provide interactive, standards-aligned math activities. Usable Math features word problems and coaching from four friendly virtual tutors: Estella Explainer, Chef Math Bear, How-to Hound, and Visual Vicuna.
Recently, we published an article in Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education sharing behind-the-scenes insights into key decisions that shaped Usable Math’s design.
Here’s what we learned:
Multiple Perspectives Expand Math Thinking
We chose to keep all four coaches, each offering different problem-solving approaches. This shows math isn’t just one rigid way of thinking but a creative, multi-faceted subject. When students experience diverse strategies, it expands their thinking and skillset.
Google Slides Enable Easy Authoring
Building the system on Google Slides provides an intuitive, no-code way for us to create content. Teachers can also use Google Slides to make customized math materials aligned to their classroom needs. The cloud-based design makes Usable Math accessible on any device too.
Click-to-Reveal Builds Engagement
With click-to-reveal formatting, users control the pace of problem-solving. Hints appear one click at a time, encouraging students to analyze each strategy before answering. This fosters the habit of thoughtful problem-solving over rushing.
Growth Mindset Feedback Motivates Learners
We integrated surprise motivational statements after each problem. These growth mindset-focused affirmations give feedback on effort while building persistence and self-belief. Carefully chosen language encourages learners’ progress.
Authoring Promotes Active Math Learning
Initially we didn't consider student-authored content, but inviting kids to create their own word problems and coach hints was transformative. Writing math stories cements understanding and gives teachers insights into students' thinking.
Key Takeaways for Teachers
Our experiences developing Usable Math yielded useful insights for teachers designing online or offline math learning:
Multiple perspectives expand thinking - consider diverse approaches
Build interactivity and learner choice/control
Feedback should reinforce growth mindset
Enable students to actively create math content
Align materials to standards and your learners’ needs
While technology can help differentiate instruction, teachers play a crucial role in fostering classroom cultures where problem-solving is valued over speed. Together we can make math learning engaging and effective for every student!
Explore Usable Math modules at https://usablemath.org/ and share your ideas for creating the most usable math learning! Math learning dramatically declined during the pandemic as students experienced months of disjointed remote education. As schools returned to in-person instruction, it became clear many students needed extra support rebuilding foundational math skills.
Until next time.
SG, RM & SE
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