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Math at the Academy at SOAR

At the Academy at SOAR, we are using an A.I. run computer program for all our Math classes, called ALEKS. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1Q4jRbpODQ (3 Min 50 Video))


ALEKS is a ground-breaking technology developed from research at New York University and the University of California, Irvine, by a team of software engineers, mathematicians, and cognitive scientists with the support of a multi-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. ALEKS is fundamentally different from previous educational software. At the heart of ALEKS is an artificial intelligence engine that assesses each student individually and continuously.

ALEKS is based upon original theoretical work in a field of study called “Knowledge Space Theory.” Work in Knowledge Space Theory was begun in the early 1980s by Dr. Jean-Claude Falmagne, an internationally renowned mathematician and Professor of Cognitive Sciences who is the Chairman and founder of ALEKS Corporation.


ALEKS avoids multiple-choice questions and instead uses flexible and easy to use answer input tools that mimic what would be done with paper and pencil. When a student first logs on to ALEKS, a brief tutorial shows him how to use these ALEKS answer input tools. The student then begins the ALEKS Assessment. In a short period of time (about 45 minutes for most courses), ALEKS assesses the student’s current course knowledge by asking him a small number of questions (usually 20-30). ALEKS chooses each question on the basis of his answers to all the previous questions. Each student, and therefore each set of assessment questions, is unique. It is impossible to predict the questions that will be asked.

By the time the student has completed the assessment, ALEKS has developed a precise picture of her knowledge of the course, knowing which topics she has mastered and which topics she hasn’t. The student’s knowledge is represented by a multi-color pie chart.

The pie chart is also the student’s entry into the Learning Mode. In the Learning Mode, she is offered a choice of topics that she is ready to learn (she has the prerequisite knowledge to successfully learn these topics). When she chooses a topic to learn,

ALEKS offers her practice problems that teach the topic. These problems have enough variability that a student can only get them consistently correct on understanding the core principle defining the topic. If a student doesn’t understand a particular problem, she can always access a complete explanation. Once she can consistently get the problems for a given topic correct, ALEKS considers that the student has learned the topic and the student chooses another topic to learn. As the student learns new topics, ALEKS updates its map of the student’s knowledge. The student can observe the most current summary of what she knows and what she is ready to learn.

To ensure that topics learned are retained in long term memory, ALEKS periodically reassesses the student, using the results to adjust the student’s knowledge of the course. Because students are forced to show mastery through mixed-question assessments that cannot be predicted, mastery of the ALEKS course means true mastery of the course.


ALEKS keeps server statistics that measure learning success of all students, namely how often they succeed at learning a concept that ALEKS offers them as “ready to learn.”  When ALEKS determines that a student is ready to learn an item, the student is able to learn it a very high percentage of the time. In the small percentage of cases where the student is initially unsuccessful, the topic is presented again to the student later on.  Because of the artificial intelligence in ALEKS, students are almost always successful at learning the material ALEKS offers them. (The level of instructor involvement doesn’t affect this.)

The Average Historical Student Learning Rates with ALEKS is ~90%


  • Many topics are available in both English and Spanish. Simply click next to “English” in the main menu and pull down to “Espanol.”
  • ALEKS avoids multiple-choice questions. All questions are algorithmically generated and require a “free response.”
  • Whenever the student reenters the system after a break, she automatically returns to the place she was last working. This is true even if the departure was caused by unexpected loss of connectivity on the Internet or a PC crash.

If you have any questions about the Academy at SOAR and how we work with our students on academics please call the Admissions Office at 828-456-3435!


Our Brains, Our Regulation, Ourselves

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. ~ Albert Einstien

February 20th, 2019

By: Nicole Gerber

One important step we can take into understanding our true genius is coming into awareness about ourselves.  If we dedicate time to have a deep sense of self-awareness, our self-esteem will grow and we will be one step closer to sharing our strengths with the world.

Understanding our brain and how it interprets the world around us is a good first step.  Let’s start where our brain starts: the Amygdala. The amygdala is a section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and responding to emergency events.  The amygdala is meant to act as a protector from harm.  However, sometimes our amygdala can become hijacked creating a disproportionate response to stimuli.  

Many of you have heard of fight, flight, and freeze.  This is what happens when our amygdala is triggered by our 5 senses and/or feelings.  We take information in through our five senses and our brain first decides how it feels about it before it thinks about it.  We are feeling thinking creatures.  Thus if our amygdala is triggered to fight or flight or freeze we can’t stop and think or process what is being said.  How do we retrain our amygdala when the instinctual response was above and beyond what is needed to protect us?

Let’s pause for an example and some practice of identifying patterns in our brains.  I’ll share a story and see if you can find the trigger, and identify the amygdala response (fight, flight, freeze).  

Example. Sue arrived to school today and is looking out of sorts (eyes are low, not talking, frowning, hands are in fists).  The teacher goes to Sue to ask to the side if everything is okay. Sue says “Yes”. The teacher with not much time to pause takes her response for fact and moves on directing the classroom.  Everyone is directed to take a seat at their desks. As Sue moves toward her desk her peer isn’t looking where they are going and bumps into Sue knocking her slightly. Sue responds by throwing her books to the ground and yelling furiously at the peer.

Sue’s amygdala was hijacked! The peer only slightly bumped Sue.  So why did she respond with such fury?

I would like to introduce something called kindling.  Like a fire, if we are building a flame out of hot coals it will ignite quickly and without warning.  If we have sufficiently used our strategies and built up safety systems to completely extinguish the fire it will take time to build again. Sue amygdala must have already been stimulated and ready to ignite! Let’s gather some more information with curiosity and patience.

Example:  What I didn’t tell you about Sue was that she didn’t sleep well last night.  On top of that, she had already been told three times that morning before she got to school that she was late, slow, and underprepared. KINDLING!

We have over 50 trillion cells to learn to control.  Imagine it in the terms of Star Wars. Mastering our cells is like becoming our own Jedi master!  Developing a way to slow our reactionary behavior and getting to know our amygdala may be the most influential set of cells we could learn to control.  Here are some strategies to get you started!

Step 1: Nurturing a Healthy Brain

These tips were given by Jill Bolte Taylor (her website is located below).

  1. Honor the power of restful sleep.
  2. Pay attention to what we feed our cells.
  3. Move your body! Stimulate your brain!
  4. Observe when your amygdala is triggered.
  5. Pay attention to what you are doing with your POWER (50 Trillion Cells)!

Having consistent brain health behaviors is very important.  After we have that down, it is important to know that when our amygdala is in fight, flight or freeze, we can not use rational or reasoning.  We have to first calm the amygdala before we can put back on the thinking cap and problem solve. Here is how.

Step 2: Calming our Amygdala

  1. Breath
  2. Move

That is it.  You can use breathing exercises and/or incorporate movement.  Without calming the amygdala all the wisdom in the world will not get through.  Trying to talk someone into calming down will prove ineffective if the person is truly in a place of fight, flight or freeze.  We can only model breathing or get moving. You will know when someone is ready to start processing when they have lowered their heart rate, breathing has normalized, and their behavior is safe toward themselves and the people and things around them.

Now that we have tips about our keeping brains healthy, how can we understand our brains and learn about our triggers?  Well my friends, let’s talk about that buzz word MINDFULNESS! Below you will find several techniques and exercises to utilize that help you stay in control of your cells.  

Step 3: Get prepared! Practice and Repeat! (ONLY WHEN CALM)

These suggestions will only work when they are consistent and routine.  Sure they will inform small bits, but if you don’t have a plan set-up don’t expect to use these in the moment of frustration.  In the moment of frustration go back up to step 2.

Mindfulness Games and Activities: Pick one a week that sounds fun and practice as a family.

Grounding activities:

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Guided Imagery

Breathing activities:

  • Breathe for 90 seconds, letting thoughts pass through your mind
  • Breathe and count while pressing your thumb to each finger on the same hand one at a time
  • Lay on the floor on your back place an object (it may symbolize a feeling) and breath watching the object rise and fall
  • Breathe through a straw

Movement activities:

  • Yoga
  • Create a labyrinth on the floor.  Silently walk the path and breath.
  • Wall sits and breathing
  • Take a walk.  Use your sense to name everything you can see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste.

Focused Attention Practices:

  • Mindful eating
  • Pink and Thumb exercise: both hands in front of you, point right thumb toward the sky, and point left pinky toward the sky.  Then switch and repeat, slowly picking up speed.
  • Star Fish: Put your hand with spread fingers on a flat surface.  Trace your hand with the opposite hand’s finger and count. Moving back and forth tracing and breathing.
  • Pick a partner and have a conversation making every third-word pop.  Then continue the conversation and stand on one leg. (Laughter is inevitable)

Games and Activities:

  • Cloudy Vs. Clear Mind (see the book: Mindfulness: Skills Workbook for Clinicians and Clients)
  • Implicit Memory Dice Game (see the book: Same as above)

I know this is just a start.  Retraining our brains and the way we understand ourselves is a worthy cause.  The perspective I have gained in my own life has been invaluable. I hope this seed of thought expands and sparks curiosity.  Keep researching and find what works for you!

I am also sure that many families have their own list of resources that help foster a healthy brain and increased self-regulation.  Do you know of a diet that increases healthy brain activity? Do you have a routine that helps with preventative measures to calm the anxious spirit?  Maybe you know of some activities that focus all that wonderful energy in a positive direction? Please share those resources in the comments below.


If you have any questions about the blog I would be happy to answer.  You can find my contact information on our SOAR website www.soarnc.org under the tab meet our staff (Nicole Gerber).  Enjoy the growing pains! Change is inevitable!


Website Resources:
Book Resources:
Mindfulness: Skills Workbook for Clinicians and Clients By Debra BurdickAuthors note: Hello from the GAP Program!  If you haven’t heard of our program you can find more details on our website: https://soarnc.org/gap-year/ , you can also find out what our current group is doing on their blog!