Thoughts on Jacobs Algebra

I got to borrow the Jacobs textbooks (both Algebra and Geometry) from a local homeschooler. These were in my list of possible math resources. Her son is using the Algebra right now so I only had the book for the weekend. Although reviews of these texts on homeschooling sites are good, I wanted to take a look myself because they aren’t cheap. (I’ve been watching a few e-bay auctions and even 2nd hand copies usually go for over $50; sometimes well over.) I’ll just talk about the Algebra text in this post.

On the positive side, this textbook is very thorough. It is written by one man and has a coherent approach. In an age where textbooks are often written by committee, with consequences that remind one of the joke about the camel and the horse, having a coherent treatment of the subject is refreshing. It is also clear that this textbook has been around for a while, even though there are current editions. There are no “boxes” with sound-bites of “relevant” or “exciting” information. There are cartoons in every chapter, germane to the topic, but that’s about it. No colour plates. The presentation is straightforward and seems to be based on the assumption that algebra can be interesting in and of itself. (Complaints about these general features of contemporary textbooks can be found here (mine) and here (Steph’s). Becky raised the committee issue in a comment on that first link.)

The other thing that indicates that this is an older-style textbook is that most textbooks are now designed to fit with “state standards” and “provincial curriculum”. Since most of these split Algebra over 2 years — Algebra I and Algebra II — the Jacobs text stands out for treating the whole subject as one coherent whole. You would need to do the work of correlating it to your state standards if you are producing a transcript, but that might mean taking 2 years to go through the book and providing a double credit at the end. Certainly feasible. And the coherence of the program might make this an attractive option.

Although a teachers guide (which I didn’t see), transparency masters (ditto), and test masters (I did see these; seemed very useful if you like that sort of thing) are available to accompany the text, the text is reasonably self-explanatory. The concepts are broken down and sequenced in a sensible way. And each section has lots of practice problems divided into 4 sets of increasing complexity. Set IV is almost always just one or two really interesting problems. The answers to Set II problems are included in the back of the book (the others are in the teachers guide) and this is a level that seems reasonable for a self-taught student to master.

Those of you who know that I hang out (in cyberspace at least) with the creative learner types will immediately see what the problem with the text might be. It is very sequential. And breaks things down in small steps. I found myself trying to work out what we would skip and how we would decide that that was okay. I know Tigger is already quite familiar with some of this material and while I can see the logic of reviewing it as a set of building blocks to something more complex, there would be a very real danger of turning her off. A kid with even more right-brained learning style might find this approach very off-putting. In addition, from this perspective, the text book is very text heavy. The cartoons provide light relief. They are not integrated into the instructional text. Nor is there much else in the way of visual approaches to the concepts.

The other main problem from our perspective is the number of problems. The Set IV problems look interesting (but we’d need the teacher’s guide to get the solutions). I like the idea of doing a few basic problems to warm up, and then doing some of increasing complexity, but I’d have to really pick and choose. It would be unreasonable to ask any student to do all of the problems in all 4 sets for each lesson. I guess you’d have to work with it and see how it works. I suspect that Set II is a good level for most kids. And you could use a couple of Set I questions as a warm-up or, if the student was having some difficulty grasping the concept, you might use Set I to work through it. For a bright kid like Tigger, I’d certainly want to be challenging her with the Set III or Set IV questions. But she is a 5 questions a day kind of kid (Though that is with the questions in Challenge Math, which are all complex.) so the total number seems really daunting.

From our perspective, Jacobs Algebra would not be worth the money, particularly since I’d need the teacher’s guide as well as the student text. It seems that the Key To Algebra series probably provides sufficient problems to work through in order to learn the concepts (thus Sets I and II would be redundant) even though the concepts are presented in a different order. It is similarly self-teaching friendly. I am glad that I know someone locally who has the Jacobs, though, because it might be a useful source of more complex problems (even without the answers). Or, as Tigger matures, she might decide she likes that kind of sequential approach for self-teaching.

If you have kids that like a sequential approach and take in information well through reading this textbook might be a very good fit for you, especially if they prefer to work independently. I suspect the teachers guide would be handy to have, not only for the other answer keys, but also for ideas on how to extend the explanations in the student text when required.

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Jacobs Algebra

  1. Thanks for the review. I have been wondering about this one myself.
    Have you written about Challenge Math? Can you point me to some info on that?
    Right now Superboy has started Keys to Algebra and is liking it better than anything else we’ve done lately. But I need to add in some actual problem-solving stuff as Keys is pretty much exclusively straight-forward computation.I’m afraid his brain will atrophy if that is all he does!LOL!

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  2. Thanks for the review. I am so confused about what to do next that I just don’t think about it anymore!

    We’re going to have some fun with the Zaccaro books for a while so I can think it over. I may look into the Key to stuff.

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  3. I’m not sure if I have but Tigger really likes it. We’ve only used the regular Challenge Math (because we found out about it when she’d almost done the primary stuff) but Shaun has used Primary Challenge Math. I suspect Superboy wouldn’t need that either.

    Shaun left some suggestions on one of my earlier math posts about problem approaches to math so scroll through there. And I’m planning on lending Challenge Math to the mom that I borrowed Jacobs from (she has 2 boys). She mentioned some books of problems the other day so I’ve e-mailed her asking if she could post a comment with suggestions. Check back in a day or so.

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  4. I’ve heard similar things from other folks, so it is nice to get your review to confirm it. Much too sequential for my kids.

    BTW, have you noticed that Maria Miller (the math workbooks you pointed me to a few years ago) now has Algebra?

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  5. Have you looked at Life of Fred? That might be a more friendly approach. Key to Algebra is more of an introduction than a full course. Challenge Math isn’t algebra level, though he does have one that is algebra level. Let me go look at the bookshelf and see if it’s there. It’s called Real World Algebra. Art of Problem Solving also has an intro to algebra book that gets good reviews.

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  6. The way we do it is to work problems from Set II, and not all of them all the time. Set I is review and Set III is just a repeat of the same concepts as Set II, for those who need extra practice. Set IV as you noticed is just for fun for math-puzzle types. My oldest used to try to solve some of them with me.

    Set II, especially in the second half of the book, usually starts off incrementally — that is, the first couple of problems are just to make sure the student understands the steps. My kids don’t always do those ones either.

    My oldest tested out of the first half of the book, because like Tigger he already knew most of it. My more recent students have needed some easy sections in order to build confidence.

    We like it best of the resources we have seen so far — yes, it is linear-sequential. Haven’t found a cure for that in the high-school-math world so I am following your math quest to see what resources you end up with for teaching Tigger.

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