Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ReFlexing our Math Muscles

A couple of times this summer I have mentioned on my blog that we are working hard on math facts this summer with one of my kids. Both kids are changing schools this year and I am worried that we're not exactly math-fact-ready. We have tried a lot of things this summer - iPad and web games, flashcards, drawing visual representations of the facts. All were met with teeth gnashing and big sighing. The most recent addition to our math fact repertoire is a web tool called Reflex.

Reflex is a math fact fluency tool made by ExploreLearning, the Gizmos people. My school district has been a subscriber of Gizmos, standards-based math and science simulation tools, for over three years. As subscribers, we get a regular e-newsletter for Gizmos and Reflex. In each newsletter, the big gains possible with Reflex are highlighted. This is what made me try the 14-day trial. 

The first time we used Reflex, we were greeted by a funny crab who delivered directions. Numbers had to be typed as quickly as possible, probably to gauge how quickly a child could type a response. Eventually simple numbers turned into math problems. Step two was similar but in a different setting. A rabbit named Dwight invited simple number typing and then problem solving. Next a student pops balloons by answering problems. This allows a student to earn a ticket to Reflex island when games can be played after some coaching and puzzle making with a bear called Coach Penny. She gets us ready to play the games each day. Games allow students to earn tokens that can be redeemed in a store for clothes and other customizations for an avatar.

Dwight and Penny prepare students to play games on Reflex Island

There were many reasons this tool appealed to my child on Day 1. With all these layers and characters, you don't get bored. Even when you find something you don't like (we're not big Coach Penny fans over here), it doesn't last long and then the focus shifts, even though the work remains the same. The characters are unique and funny. Every time Reflex is "played" at our house, someone mimics Dwight the Rabbit as he explains that if we see a fact we don't know, we can "hit the space bah." The avatar is fun and customizing it brings a gamification quality to learning facts. The games played on Reflex Island are simple - the ninja game was a BIG hit over here - and emphasize mastery in a way that just feels like playing a game.

There have been many reasons that this tool has appealed to me so far. Each day a new element is introduced. New games are unlocked or new features are enabled or and the difficulty increases. Coach Penny does give a brief lesson, so some direct instruction of a rule or fact family is present. I like the focus on fact families. When 100% fluency is reached, it will be with multiplication and division of numbers 0-10, not just multiplication.

We're now on Day 11 and I am pretty impressed. From the teacher side of the tool, I love the reports that are available so I can see the progress from Day 1 to now. The fluency meter continues to rise every day, a fact family tree shows how many facts have been assessed and how many have been mastered, and I can quickly generate graphs that show fluency gains over time. I also like the milestone certificates that are generated. 

We have had a few setbacks. As the content increased in difficulty or games got harder, there have been tears. One way we combated that was to turn down the volume. This way it's easier to ignore the pressure of the timing feature - my children do not like to be timed - and the sometimes distraction of music and noises.

This great tool does have a cost. For home use, I'll pay $35 per student per year. On the one hand, that feels like a lot. On the other hand, in 11 days I saw big gains in fluency, so it feels like money well-spent to me. Which is good because our free trial ends in 3 days. I just wish my subscription came with a plush Crabby. Or that we could buy a plush Crabby. That sure would be nice tucked inside a schultüte in two weeks.

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