Software Review: TenMarks

Guest Blog by Andrew from Match Next

Hi all. Andrew here, Match Next tech guy. If you’re a regular reader, you may have seen my post last week where I described my 5-stage process for evaluating a tech product’s usefulness to our blended learning pilot. As promised, today I’m going to tell you about a product that just made it to Stage 4 - the all-class tryout. (That’s rare, less than 1% of the products I’ve tried make it that far.) It’s called TenMarks

Our Bottom Line.

TenMarks is a website where kids answer math problems. There are videos and hints to help them if they get stuck. I’ll explain more below, but if you only read one thing today, my rating is an 8 out of 10. The program has a few drawbacks, but an 8 out of 10 is way better than most products I’ve seen.  

The good: The questions are tough. They even impress Ryan, our picky math teacher. Also, the website is clean and easy to navigate. And the data is clearly presented and quite useful.

The bad: We would’ve liked more control over certain parts of the content (like the sequence of individual questions). And the sign-in for kids is a bit tricky. And it costs money for full access to their program - $20 bucks per kid. (Though sometimes you get what you pay for…)

Why we like it:

According to Ryan, our math guy, the questions in TenMarks are really pretty good. Plus, they’re more rigorous than the problems in Khan Academy*. We use Khan as a way to get our kids a bunch of practice on easy-ish questions, but we’ve been looking for a math program that can give our kids tougher problems.

*(If you’re familiar with Khan Academy, feel free to skip this paragraph) For those of you that haven’t heard of it, let me explain. Khan’s the famous one. It’s a website that uses videos to teach lessons on a ton of topics like math, Chemistry, and Physics. It also has a bunch of practice problems that users can do. If they want, though, users can skip the videos altogether and go straight to the problems.

TenMarks passed my Stage 2 ‘sniff’ test, so I put it in front our students for a test drive (Stage 3). The general consensus from students was, ‘it’s annoying.’

Hmm.

I asked around. They found it ‘annoying’ because “the problems were hard.” (Love it.) Not a surprising 4th grade reaction. The ‘annoying’ factor came down to two things:

1) Many of the problems actually contained several ‘mini’ questions. Our kids weren’t used to this, and they found it draining and frustrating. They just wanted to solve a quick problem, then move onto the next one.   

2) Many of the answer choices were written out in complete sentences. Ryan does a good bit of this questioning in his own materials, but our students generally don’t see these types of problems on computer programs like Khan.

In general, we think Khan is pretty easy stuff for our guys, especially compared to what they did on TenMarks. Let me explain by showing you a head-to-head comparison of Khan versus TenMarks.

Head-to-head Khan vs TenMarks comparison.

Here’s an example of a fraction exercise in Khan:


Not much to it here. They just need to drag the fractions into the correct order. The scope of the Khan exercises for 4th graders are currently pretty limited to rote practice, full of questions at around the same level of difficulty as the one above. (By the way, we don’t dislike this at all. Actually, we think rote practice gets a bad rap sometimes and Khan can be a good tool to help lock in those key basic skills.) The thing is, we’re always on the prowl for math software that can go to the next level of difficulty, especially since those next-level questions can be time-consuming to write.

Ok, back to TenMarks. TenMarks often hits this next level of question difficulty. Students often have to do all sorts of things they’re not really used to doing on math programs, like read through answer choices that are written in full sentences, perform error analysis, and dig through questions that contain several correct answers (and select all the right ones).

Here’s a TenMarks version of comparing fractions:

These types of problems drove our kids nuts. It’s actually three little questions mushed into a bigger one. Not only do they a) have to solve the question for themselves, they also need to b) determine why Sam got the problem right, and c) perform an error-analysis and determine exactly why Sam got the problem wrong.

So why are problems like the TenMarks one above ‘good?’ A few reasons.

1) It helps students build endurance for longer problems. Khan has such a tight feedback loop that we’ve found kids can begin to expect that kind of immediacy. The longer, harder TenMarks problems help us push their per-question endurance.
2) It helps the math-related language skills. This actually brings to mind a big question about reading ability in math with English Language Learners. Students may understand the numbers behind math concepts, but not the wording and syntax of how to phrase them. We like TenMarks’ guided exposure of the math vocab.
3) It requires a deep understanding of the concept. And the structure of the questions allows us to see where a kid’s understanding breaks down.

Data and Logistics.

On the back-end, the program itself is fairly teacher-friendly. It’s easy to assign problem sets, and the program automatically collects students’ performance data. From the teacher dashboard, I can see:

a) overall class performance


b) individual student performance (including questions each student got correct/incorrect/partially correct, and the time spent)


c) the most common mistakes

Videos and Hints

TenMarks also has videos that students can use if they’re stuck on a problem. They’re not bad, though we don’t use them because it’s more efficient for our tutors to jump in.

Interesting organization note: Khan divides his videos into two types: intro to a concept and example problems. TenMarks makes it one, a quick intro and then jumping into an example. I prefer Khan’s split.

Aside from that, the head-to-head videos are a wash. TenMarks seems to do a bit better on the visual side, Khan a bit cleaner on the explanations.

For instance, here’s TenMarks’ video-diagrams for comparing fractions vs. Khan’s.

TenMarks Fraction-Comparison Diagram

Khan Academy Fraction-Comparison Diagram

Hints.

What if a kid gets stuck? Students are allotted 3 hints for each problem. The first hint is very general, and the next two get more direct and specific each time. Here’s an example.

The program records the number of ‘Hints’ students use per question. That’s a nifty little data point to consider when seeing how well a kid understands the problems.

The ‘not so good’

2 small complaints:

1) We want to control the order of the questions. Of a set of 10 or 20 questions now, TenMarks randomizes the sequence for each kid.

2) The login is a bit annoying. A lot of the stuff we have our kids use can be accessed via their Google e-mail address. Like Khan Academy. Students sign into the Chromebooks they use with Match-provided G-mail accounts. Whenever they go to a website like Khan, there’s an option to ‘Sign in with Google.’

Once they click the blue button, they’re logged in. TenMarks, though, automatically creates usernames and passwords for students. These usernames/passwords are pretty unwieldy, like ‘matht25776.’ Not the easiest thing to remember…

So we like it, and plan on using it. It helps tremendously by saving Ryan time creating, grading, and analyzing the types of harder questions he’d like to give our students. In fact, one of the sales-reps I spoke to even likened the program to a "teacher's aid."

I’ll send an update after we have our kids do 4 or 5 problem sets. Cheers!