Tutoring software that cares

Tutoring software that senses the student’s emotions is being tested by researchers, reports Education Week.

It’s not clear yet that sensitive software will produce better results, but one experiment by University of Massachusetts and Arizona State researchers boosted the pass rate on state geometry tests by 10 percent.

The system picks up on students’ emotional states through hundreds of sensors embedded in the computer, students’ chairs, and other aspects of the students’ learning environment.

Sensors worn like a bracelet around the wrist detect changes in students’ pulse and in moisture levels on the surface of the skin. Sensors embedded in the chair cushions identify nine different postures a learner might take. Leaning forward, for example, suggests engagement, while a student leaning to the side might be bored or frustrated. On the computer mouse, pressure-sensitive sensors signal whether a student is squeezing harder in possible frustration.

The researchers also collect data on students’ emotions through a video camera embedded on the computer. It trains its focus on the student’s eyebrows, mouth, and nose, discerning whether the learner is smiling, frowning, or yawning.

The tutor can identify changes in students’ moods more than half the time, researchers say.  Animated tutors “mirror those emotions and offer an appropriate response,” emphasizing the importance of effort.

What the researchers have found in some of the studies so far is that the emotion-sensitive tutors, besides boosting students’ average achievement, seem to lead to improvements in the way that students think about math and their own math abilities. They are more likely after their tutoring sessions to agree, for instance, with statements saying “mathematics is an important topic” and to believe they are good at it. Students also seem to get bored with the tutor less quickly than they do with the unenhanced system.

The emotion-sensing tutor worked best for girls, low achievers and special-education students.

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  1. Is anyone as creeped out as I am here? “Hundreds of sensors” embedded in the chair desk and computer? Are we trying to have total and absolute control over students and respond instantly to every sigh and whine?

    Sometimes the students whims should be ignored and the learning should progress anyway.

    The second thought I had was that this sounds very much like a Skinner box.

    The third thought was that the students would quickly learn to manipulate it.

  2. My first thought was for the ASD students who would totally confuse the machine.

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    I, too, find this creepy. Can’t a student struggle with the material? Can’t a student think whatever he or she wishes?

    These kids will become so used to constant individualized stimulus that they will be at a loss without it.

    As Curmudgeon says, “Sometimes the students’ whims should be ignored and the learning should progress anyway.”

  4. Diana and Curmudgeon,

    Did you even read the article? Heck, did you even read Joanne’s synopsis? It’s not “whims,”folks. It’s something we call “stress levels.” When those get too high, learning goes down (yes, even for adults- even for the two of you.) So these sensors aim to mitigate rising stress levels (and other emotional inhibitors to learning) so that learning goes up. Using this technology maximizes the learning. It doesn’t “control” the students. Try to be more open to new things.

    Also, Merry Christmas.

  5. Mike Curtis says:

    Eventually, the students will have to be measured against an established standard of performance; in other words, tested. If the assessor is honest, feelings won’t matter.


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