What if math teachers across the country could get their pupils to learn two to three times faster? Yearlong courses like pre-algebra and geometry could be condensed to several months, freeing up students to dig deeper into subjects or learn additional material.
That's exactly the question that Ken Koedinger, a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, had when he helped found Carnegie Learning, Inc., in 1998. The organization's goal is to create and publish innovative, research-based curricula for middle school, high school, and post-secondary students, and Koedinger had one major contribution: computerized tutors.
These aren't futuristic robots that walk around a classroom like a traditional teacher. Instead, they're adaptive computer systems — a form of artificial intelligence — that Carnegie Learning calls "cognitive models." And they help students learn by having them actually do activities, instead of just read and learn theory.
"The potential here is to streamline that process of learning by doing, so that you can become an expert at something two or three times faster, and if you use the same amount of time, you learn two to three times more," Koedinger says.
Here's a rough outline of how these cognitive models might work for an average classroom of students learning algebra:Twice a week (ideally), teachers take their class to a computer lab where the machines are already loaded with the Cognitive Tutor Algebra program. Students log onto the program, which presents them with problems and activities to practice what they're learning in class. The software understands the various way students might answer a problem and the different errors they could make in the process. If a student does make a mistake, the program will draw the student's attention to it. Based on how each student answers the questions, the system adjusts the pace and trajectory of the activities. For example, if a student is struggling with a problem that involves the area of a circle, the computer will identify which part of the question is causing the student trouble (the area formula, the arithmetic involved, etc.) and then follow up with activities that isolate and practice that particular skill.
Cognitive tutor programs are part of a bigger trend known as "flipped classroom" or "flipped learning." The basic idea is pretty much how it sounds — to flip, or invert, the traditional format of teaching. Homework and practice activities take place in the classroom, while the students use their own time to read and watch lectures.
Studies show that these flipped models are generally better at helping students learn, and cognitive tutors aim to make them even more effective. Koedinger points out that with computer software tutors, students get the one-on-one attention that is tough for teachers to provide in a traditional classroom setting. When all the students are engaged, that also frees the instructor up to float around the room and step in where most needed.
The software is designed for students to use twice a week for a rough total of 50 hours over a 36-week school year. And it's proven to produce results. A study released last summer showed that when randomly assigned schools used the program to teach algebra, students in those classes outperformed those with traditional algebra curricula by eight percentage points (that translates to the difference between a B- and a B+).
Schools can license the tutoring software for about $100 per student, per year. As the researchers collect more data and continue to fine-tune the setup, Koedinger says they'll learn more about the teaching and learning processes — what works, and what doesn't. He thinks cognitive models are the first step in transforming a fundamentally slow and inefficient education system.
"If this were transportation, we're like the first Model T car that Ford made," he says. "But we could have airplanes for learning that get you from point A to point B. We really need to learn how to optimize the learning process."
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