Teaching Gets Smarter

cognitive tutors

Kenneth Koedinger came to Carnegie Mellon University in 1986 as a Ph.D. student — exploring how software could be harnessed as a teaching tool.

Twenty-five years later, more than 500,000 students a year are learning math more easily and efficiently through the cognitive tutors he and colleagues developed.

Studying under John Anderson — a learning science pioneer — the pair developed artificially intelligent software that worked with the student.

Not only did it analyze the student's learning behavior, it offered individualized help.

"Instructors and instructional designers often have it wrong about what's hard for their students," explained Koedinger, now a CMU professor of human-computer interaction and psychology.

He alluded to the fact that curriculum is often designed based on intuition.

"Data can run counter to intuition.  Everybody thinks that algebra story problems are harder than pure math, but we were surprised to find just the opposite in the data on actual student performance."

To gain firsthand insight, Koedinger spent time teaching in a local school.

When teachers struggled to blend the software into their existing coursework, he and his colleagues developed entire curricula integrating the tutors with textbooks and teaching practices.

Early results were so impressive that teachers at non-participating schools began requesting the programs. Today, students at more than 2,600 schools are successfully using cognitive tutor courses.

Recent findings from Kentucky, for instance, report that kids in eight districts moved up significantly in their math percentile rankings.

Koedinger and his colleagues continue their research and development through the NSF-funded Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (PSLC) — a partner of Carnegie Mellon University.

Cognitive tutors now exist for science and language. And the center collaborates with numerous schools that have adopted the courses.

"Part of the PSLC idea is to make the school the lab," he noted. "Like using a microscope, we can see things in detail we couldn't see before. With these computer systems we're seeing fine details in how students are behaving as they're learning."

Koedinger believes CMU is the ideal place to conduct research that makes an impact.

"What's great about our collaboration is that you can have scientists at the university that are doing great science, and it's going into course design," he said. "It's kind of a research-to-application pipeline and PSLC is the source of that pipeline."

He added, "The atmosphere here is about doing good science that changes the way people think. That fits with our entrepreneurial spirit."

And there's more. With widespread use, the cognitive tutors have now collected a library of information.

"We have thousands of hours worth of data — 40,000 students' learning at a 20-second interval," he said.

With that wealth of data, says Koedinger, he and his fellow researchers hope to pioneer the next revolution in the way we teach our children.


Related Links: Brain, Mind & Learning at CMU | "Carnegie Mellon Today" on Transforming America's Schools | PSLC | HCII