Public Release: 

$2M award funds intelligent tutoring system aimed at improving math education

Developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the system will tutor students, provide long-term assessment of student performance, and offer feedback teachers and parents can use to help students master concepts -- all without sacrificing classroom time

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WORCESTER, Mass. - May 23, 2007 - Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and Carnegie Mellon University have received a four-year, $2 million award from the federal Department of Education to continue development of a powerful computerized tool designed to help middle school students master mathematical skills.

With the award, researchers will enhance an intelligent tutoring system called ASSISTment, giving it new capabilities and transforming it into an unparalleled tool for both educating students and tracking their progress. The system will give school systems the long-term data on student performance they must report under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. More important, it will provide teachers--and parents--immediate, day-to-day feedback on what students have and have not learned, making it easier to offer individualized instruction to help students master concepts they may be struggling with.

Remarkably, the system does all this at the same time it tutors students. In fact, ASSISTments is the only system that can provide longitudinal data and a benchmark assessment of student skills without taking time out from classroom instruction, says Neil Heffernan, associate professor of computer science at WPI and leader of the ASSISTments research team.

"The No Child Left Behind Act is putting pressure on states to find out what areas student need to improve in, which is leading to a rush to do more testing," Heffernan says. "Unfortunately, this testing cuts into classroom time, and the tests don't provide the kind of immediate feedback that teachers need to do a better job in the classroom. Our system can do that, and can also help students master concepts they're struggling with, without sacrificing instructional time.

"Student shouldn't need to stop learning while they are taking a test--especially a practice test," says Kenneth R. Koedinger, associate professor in the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-principal investigator on the grant. "Students keep learning while they are using the ASSISTment system, and we are showing that we get just as good if not a better idea of what they know and do not know than we can from high pressure, one-shot tests."

Heffernan, whose expertise is in artificial intelligence and intelligent tutoring system design, leads a team that includes experts in cognitive psychology, psychometrics, and Web-based educational technology. In addition to Koedinger, the principal investigators are Brian W. Junker, professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon, George T. Heineman, associate professor of computer science at WPI, and Murali Mani, assistant professor of computer science at WPI.

With the DOE award, the team will add significant new capabilities to the system, which was developed over the past four years with support from the DOE, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies and tested extensively by teachers and students in the Worcester, Mass., Public Schools. The school system has adopted ASSISTment for use in all of its eighth grade math classes.

With the changes, the system, which is currently built around more than 900 test items from the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) 8th grade math exam, will be able to dovetail with the mathematics curricula used by individual school systems, so students can receive tutoring tied directly to what they are learning in class. It will be expanded to include content from sixth and seventh grade mathematics curricula, and will be able to generate user-friendly reports that show teachers and parents how individual students are progressing and what topics they are struggling with.

Providing regular feedback to parents will help them give their children the individualized attention they need, something teachers don't always have the time to do. "Even with the best diagnostics in the world, teachers are generally better at adapting to trends that involve the whole class then they are to the idiosyncratic needs of each individual student," Heffernan says.

Finally, the system will incorporate new features designed to help students move toward mastery of math topics. The system will keep track of each student's progress and record which skills they have not yet mastered. It will also develop and implement an individualized mastery program for each student and tailor the tutoring it delivers accordingly. The system will let students elect to take tests when they feel ready to demonstrate their mastery. The mastery component of ASSISTment will differ significantly from the approach taken by most intelligent tutors, Heffernan says.

Rather than requiring students to master a topic before they move on, the system will keep track of what they need extra help with and, as they move on to other topics, circle back from time to time to provide additional instruction, including videos showing a teacher explaining how to solve the problem and a Web site showing worked examples.

Along with expanding the capabilities of ASSISTment, Heffernan and his team will continue to evaluate the success of the program by conducting research with the 4,500 students enrolled in grades 6-8 in Worcester's public schools and their more than 60 teachers. Research on the system has already resulted in dozens of peer-reviewed papers and presentations at scientific conferences. "One of the most important findings of that research," Heffernan says, "is that we have show, without a doubt, that students are learning while they are taking our test."


About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., WPI was one of the nation's first engineering and technology universities. WPI's 18 academic departments offer more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, engineering, technology, management, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, leading to the BA, BS, MS, ME, MBA and PhD. WPI's world-class faculty work with students in a number of cutting-edge research areas, leading to breakthroughs and innovations in such fields as biotechnology, fuel cells, and information security, materials processing, and nanotechnology. Students also have the opportunity to make a difference to communities and organizations around the world through the university's innovative Global Perspective Program. There are more than 20 WPI project centers throughout North America and Central America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe.

About Carnegie Mellon

Carnegie Mellon is a private research university with a distinctive mix of programs in engineering, computer science, robotics, business, public policy, fine arts and the humanities. More than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students receive an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovation. A small student-to-faculty ratio provides an opportunity for close interaction between students and professors. While technology is pervasive on its 144-acre campus, Carnegie Mellon is also distinctive among leading research universities for the world-renowned programs in its College of Fine Arts. For more, see

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