New Computer Tutor Can Read Students Emotions and Respond

by on January 19th, 2011
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New software developed at the University of Notre Dame allows a computerized tutoring program to read the mood of students being tutored and change instruction methods based on what it finds. The work done by the team is highlighted in a recent issue of Notre Dame News.

The software, says Assistant Professor of Psychology Sidney D’Mello who along with researchers from MIT, developed the system, allows traditional tutoring programs to move from the box format of traditional environments to one that is more intuitive. He spoke with the News this week following the successful completion of a large scale test of the system that involved over a thousand students.

The system is capable of reading the faces of the person being tutored to discern mood. It also captures eye movements, a key to a loss of concentration. In addition, the system employs a number of psychological systems to gauge how well a student is responding that allows for slowing down or picking up the pace if need be. D’Mello says that by detecting boredom or anxiety, the system is able to switch the approach used. For example, if a child is frustrated, instead of simply repeating the same material in a slightly different way as most tutoring programs do, the lesson could be demonstrated by watching a video or by showing other students encountering the same problem and then showing how they worked their way through it.

Another key to the system D’Mello explains are algorithms that have been developed that correlate student questions with both a historical perspective and body movement. Two key signals that are picked up automatically by experienced human tutors but until now have been ignored by computerized systems.

The results thus far have shown that the system has been able to help most students improve at least one grade, which is better than novice human tutors but still slightly lower than that generally achieved by experienced professional tutors.

D’Mello says that his system is but one in a whole pantheon of applications that are currently being developed around the world. The time of students looking at a computer screen through windows, icons and menus and interacting with a mouse is passing. Instead, students will be both led and guided as they progress through their coursework much the same way they would be were the tutor to be an experienced human being. The goal, they say, is not to replace such tutors, but to capture their abilities so that those that cannot afford such help can get it from a computer.

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