In Algebra, letters are often used to represent numbers when making calculations. But to many students, those letters spell out nothing more than confusing barriers to understanding mathematical solutions.

One UCF faculty member, however, has developed an online adaptive-learning approach teaching the subject that has drawn the interest of philanthropist Melinda Gates, who recently posted a Back to School video and story on her social channels.

Gates met associate lecturer Tammy Muhs last year when the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation visited the UCF campus to learn about the university’s teaching methods.

Through the years, Muhs said she has discovered that students in her algebra classes have varying levels of understanding, so some of them need more time to progress. Muhs also told Gates that observers often are surprised to find out that so many seniors are in her freshman algebra class – because some students put off the class out of fear, which often is the obstacle that keeps them from graduating.

Muhs’ online adaptive-learning technique helps the students move ahead at their own pace. This system allows her to tailor course lessons based on the students’ aptitude, and continually adapts based on individual comprehension.

For example, if students can quickly understand the material in Algebra I, they may also be able to finish Algebra II in the same semester.

Conversely, the adaptive-learning platform is designed to automatically provide remedial instructions for students who may be lagging behind.

In addition to providing what each student needs to succeed, the system can accelerate the path to a degree and save students money.

“With personalized learning tools, Dr. Muhs is able to make even a class of 450 feel a little more like a class of five,” Gates says. “A student who is struggling is offered extra help. It’s like each student has a customized textbook that is constantly being rewritten just for them. And because Dr. Muhs is able to see the data in real time, she’s able to step in right away if a student needs her.”

Gates said she hopes more schools can develop such personalized courses and follow UCF’s example.

“Not every student will be lucky enough to have a teacher like Dr. Muhs,” Gates says. “But as the tools she used to design her course reach more faculty on more campuses, I hope to see more students across the country experience classes like the one she created for hers.”