Evaluating a Smart Tutor that Coaches Young Math Students

December 4, 2019

The U.S. Department of Education recently funded a four-year, $1.18 million efficacy study of MathSpring, a research-­based, game-like intelligent math tutor developed by research professor Beverly Woolf in the College of Information and Computer Sciences and her long-time collaborator Ivon Arroyo, now an associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The institutions will share fundingand focus on teachers and their classrooms in Massachusetts.

Woolf and Arroyo designed the program to provide a personalized approach to mathematical learning. MathSpring tracks and responds not only to a student’s performance, but their motivation and emotional state. It supports them through animated learning companions that can be tailored to the individual. The companions become active when the system detects emotional states like boredom and frustration. They offer advice, help and messages designed to inspire confidence and resilience.

As Woolf explains, “Emotion is a key factor in learning and often the driving force behind whether or not a student will succeed. Digital teaching systems like MathSpring provide new ways to address these issues, including how to tailor interventions to support student self-regulationand how to encourage students to feel more positive about their learning experience.”

Arroyo says, “Our research with MathSpring shows that the use of affective digital characters that act as learning companions reducefrustration and increases subject interest in general, but especially for girls, students with disabilities and low-performing students. Encouraging these students is important because success in mathematics and science strongly predicts long-term wellbeing and economic welfare.”

Woolf, an award-winning designer of software tutors, was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow by President Barack Obama in 2013 in recognition of her leadership in combiningartificial intelligence, computer network technology and multimedia features in digitaltutoring software for teaching mathematics according to individual student needs.

Arroyo, who plans to return to campus as anassociate professor in January, 2020, specializes in computer science, learning science and educational and cognitive psychology. Her expertise is in the design of newtechnologies for learning and assessment for K-12 students studying mathematics.

With the new support, Woolf and Arroyo will evaluate the effectiveness of the program in partnership with Mingyu Feng, a senior research associate at WestEd, a research agency that works with education communities to promote excellence and achieve equity in learning. They hope results will provide additionalinsights into the waysintelligent technologies can improve K-12 mathematical learning, and may help to improve student engagement with the subject.