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Cognitive Tutor Algebra I Review by Donna Campos

Carnegie Learning
Frick Building, 20th Floor, 437 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15219-4210

The Cognitive Tutor Algebra I course consists of a Student Text, Student Assignments Book, Homework Helper Workbook, and the Cognitive Tutor Software with Install Guide, which includes the Teacher's Toolkit software. This program is designed as a full Algebra I course for middle and high school students. The 618-page Student Text is perforated and three-hole-punched pages. The Student Assignments Book is not hole-punched, but it does have 216 perforated pages. The 144-page Homework Helper Workbook is not hole-punched or perforated, but it does include an additional 22 pages of answers. The three texts complement one another in subject matter and work together with the Cognitive Tutor Algebra I software for a total math program. Once you've installed the Cognitive Tutor Software, the CD-ROM is no longer required for regular use; the program runs from the computer hard drive. Note also that the Cognitive Tutor software is available for purchase separately and can be used as a supplement to any Algebra I curriculum. 

The homeschool version of this course allows for one year of use on a single computer, and the above components are listed as the complete curriculum kit. However, if you want the Teacher's Text Set (four books), you'll have to buy those separately. The Teacher's Set was not included in the materials I reviewed. 

About 60% of the course is class work (including both teacher instruction and individual work), and the remaining 40% is computer work. The course covers standard Algebra subject matter, including proportional reasoning, percents, linear equations, linear functions and inequalities, systems of equations and inequalities, quadratic functions, exponents, polynomial functions, rational expressions, probability, statistical analysis, quadratic and exponential functions, logic, and more. A graphing calculator is needed for the course. 

Designed for the public or private school setting, the course incorporates group collaborative work. For that reason, it would be ideal for home school co-ops, for larger families with multiple high school students, or for several families working on a math course together. Homeschoolers using this curriculum for just one student will need to adjust accordingly, allowing for extensive discussion between student and teacher and a good deal of creativity in adapting the lessons. 

The Cognitive Tutor software utilizes real-life scenarios to introduce algebraic problems. Scenarios might have the student figuring such things as paycheck deductions, college expenses, home improvement costs, or sales commissions, just to name a few. The broad range of topics was impressive, as was the emphasis on budgeting and saving. The program is filled with helpful tips and reminders. Little notes pop up on the screen as you work if your answer is not heading in the right direction. There is also an ever-available "Help" button at the top right of the screen. The software identifies areas where skills are lacking and increases problems to target those specific skills. Be aware, though, that the computer program does take some getting used to. Several members of our family tried it out, and we all struggled through the initial problems until we figured out what was expected. 

Although the Teacher's Toolkit portion of the software was designed to track the progress of multiple classes with multiple students all being taught by different instructors, it still offers advantages for the homeschool setting. I was able to see what types of problems specific students needed help with. Also, if you have several students taking other Cognitive Tutor courses simultaneously (in addition to Algebra I), the software will track all of them for you. This is ideal for co-ops or for large families with multiple older students. (Remember, though, that additional licenses will be required if you want to use the program for multiple families or on more than one computer.) 

I did have a few frustrations with this course, particularly with the installation of the software. I finally pulled up the website and clicked on "Installation Help" and then "New Homeschool Quick Start Guide." After printing this one-page instruction sheet, it was smooth sailing. Being restricted to just one year of use was frustrating, though I understand that the actions of those who illegally share software have made that necessary. Also, there were a few less-than-Christian attitudes expressed (relating to accumulation of possessions), and there was no direct mention of God. I suppose this shouldn't be surprising for a secular text, but I see it as a missed opportunity to recognize God as Creator of all. 

However, the ultimate frustration was not having the Teacher's Set. I found these items to be anything but optional. As I mentioned earlier, the Homework Helper book is the only book that actually comes with the answers; the Student Text and Student Assignments have none. (The software program does provide answers to the computer-based problems through the Teacher's Toolkit.) The Homework Helper book describes a typical week in the classroom when using this course. Three of the ten instructions for a typical week include teacher-prompted assignments (writing prompts, teacher-led discussions, etc.) that don't come with the standard curriculum. Since most homeschool teachers do not have the time to sit down and complete every problem to verify correctness, we conclude that the Teacher's Texts are not optional. 

To review the positives, the real-life scenarios and the broad range of subject matter impressed me. The complete absence of busy work or lists of meaningless equations to be solved actually led me to enjoy word problems! The emphasis on debt management, savings, and responsible spending was subtle but consistent. As a parent with children heading into the real world, I appreciate any program that can blend such realities into the education. However, because of all the concerns previously mentioned, I could not purchase this program. I would be much happier if they would re-list an entire homeschool curriculum that includes the Teacher's texts. It would necessitate a higher cost, but at least we would receive everything that is truly required for proper success with this course. I do believe this course could benefit homeschooling families willing to meet the challenge of adapting the group work throughout, but I don't think it meets the standard of a quality curriculum that is easy to use. 

Product review by Donna Campos, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July 2007