Best App for Algebra: Hands-On Equations 1 — The Fun Way to Learn Algebra
Bottom Line: Since we first reviewed Hands-On Equations 1 — The Fun Way to Learn Algebra, it’s only gotten better, including a progress bar, lower price, a new design and iPhone compatibility, earning an upgrade to a Top Pick! This app is a great curriculum supplement to teach algebraic thought and problem solving for Grade 3 and up. Try it for FREE with the lite version.
Hands-On Equations 1 — The Fun Way to Learn Algebra is a great app from Hands-On Equations and Dr. Henry Borenson to make learning algebra more accessible and intuitive. It’s based on an existing supplemental curriculum available for schools and home use, featuring a visual approach to learning algebraic equations that makes use of manipulatives.
This Level 1 app features six video tutorials. Each video is 2-3 minutes long, and briefly teaches the goal of the subsequent exercises. After playing a video, students get to practice the concepts learned with ten exercises for each lesson. The Hands-On Algebra approach uses a scale as a visual to represent both sides of an equation in balance, though the scale doesn’t actually move. Pawns (to represent the unknown x) and number cubes are placed on the balance beam to solve algebraic equations. The app version follows the same approach.
There is even a Lite version of this app, for those who want to actually try it before committing. And for those who can’t get enough, there are apps for both Levels 2 and 3.
The skills progress gradually, perfect for teaching algebraic thought. In the first lesson, the pieces are not manipulated. The goal is to use problem-solving skills to figure out the value of the pawn, and to teach students that both sides are equal. Even those not quite ready for the mental problem solving can start by guessing and using the auto-check function.
The real manipulative features start in Lesson 2, when the student places the pawns and cubes on the balance to represent a written equation (like 2x=x + 3). It’s such a simple way to understand the basic concepts in algebra, and this first abstract representation is still easy to figure out with mental problem solving, without reducing the equation.
Simplifying the equation is taught in the next four lessons, systematically adding one step to simplify in each lesson. Lesson 3 simplifies the pawns and Lesson 4 teaches students how to manipulate the number cubes. Subtraction on one side of the equation is taught in the fifth lesson, and Lesson 6 introduces parentheses, teaching the distributive law in an intuitive way.
I can’t give you the perspective as someone who doesn’t like math, because I have always loved algebra. It’s a system of rules to follow, and that’s just my style. But what this app does quite well is to make this system easily accessible for those who need a more tangible representation, and it provides a clear understanding of the rules
I am no math pedagogy expert, but I like how this system presents algebra (the website does have evidence for the overall program, for those who are interested). It was accessible to me as an adult, and all of my kids. Even the 7 year old can complete the exercises with some assistance from me. My 10-year-old son really benefited from the visual representation of how to balance each side of the equation.
By Lesson 6, the user will be able to solve equations such as x + 4=2x +3 and 2(2x +3)=x+9. (If, by the way, this made you cringe or sweat, think about downloading this app for yourself!) This is about a 5th-6th grade level around my area, but starting at this level is required in the program, regardless of the student’s current grade level. The levels are designed to learn in sequence. It’s also a good choice for any math-reluctant students, as a little easy success can go a long way in building confidence. Even my math-loving 12 year old enjoyed the entire app (and he’s since moved on to Level II). The earlier lessons in Level 1 are appropriate for kids even as young as 8, if they have a good number sense and basic addition and subtraction skills.
There is background music available, but thankfully it can easily be muted from each lesson page. The organization of this app is excellent. From the home page, individual user accounts can be created. From each user’s main page, the lessons are clearly organized, and the lock symbol quickly indicates which lessons have been attempted.
Common Core State Standards teach algebraic thinking starting even in kindergarten, and first grade standards focus on using unknown whole numbers. Of course, not all 6 year olds will find this app motivating enough to use. It’s not cute, there are no rewards to earn, and the positive reinforcement chime and message is the same after every complete problem. It’s geared more as an educational support for children starting in the upper elementary grades (though younger math lovers will probably think it’s great!)
The goal of each lesson is clearly presented in the video, though there were a few times that the instructor made a jump in logic that a child might not make. In Lesson 3, for example, after demonstrating how to remove the same amount from each side to help solve for x, he said, “this means that the pawn must be worth 7,” without really explaining why. Ideally, the younger learner will have the support of an adult to help fill in any teaching gaps.
I also wished for a number pad instead of a scroll to enter the solution for x, as scrolling to get to higher numbers sometimes took a few tries. However, this is admittedly a minor inconvenience, and it didn’t even slow down my son with weak fine motor skills. In addition, entering numbers on a number pad could interfere with the whole methodology in this app. In a base 10 system, the user would represent fourteen on a number pad by selecting a 1 and then a 4, but the scale represents the “weight” of 14 with a 10-cube and a 4-cube. It’s probably best to not include two different representations in an app targeted for younger learners.
The app would also be improved by adding a few more fun features. Why not have more than just pawns to represent x? I can understand the need for simplicity when creating the standard materials, but the beauty of an app is the room for creativity.
I also wished that the scale would actually work as a scale. If the equation doesn’t balance, the scale doesn’t change. I believe this is similar to the actual curriculum, too, but it would provide one more representation for actual balance to help kids learn. It’s definitely not a necessary component to the method of learning, though, and students understand the need for balance even though the scale doesn’t move.
Overall, this app is a great choice for parents and teachers. There are over 80 equations in this app, presented in a very easy-to-understand way. Anyone who has ever said that they are no good at algebra should consider checking out this app, and de-mystify the whole process. With a lite version available to try out, it’s hard to lose.
Heather Hetler already has a good understanding of basic algebra, but she still had to solve all of the equations in this app for fun.