UMass Amherst researchers are developing interactive computerised tutors that sense a student’s emotional and motivational state of mind while teaching them geometry and algebra.
Special sensors are used to help make the computer tutor respond when students become angry, frustrated or bored, based on body language, attention and other indicators.
Beverly Woolf, a research associate professor of computer science, said the introduction of the emotion sensors helps the scientists respond to how people actually learn.
‘If you improve the social intelligence of the computer, students respond the way they would to another person. Sensors allow the computer to identify students who pay attention and those too tired or bored to learn. Using these cues, the computer provides individualised instruction,’ Woolf said.
Woolf is part of a team of scientists that includes research scientist Ivon M. Arroyo, computer science professor Andrew Barto and Winslow Burleson from Arizona State University. The tutors they have designed teach geometry and algebra to high school students, but can be adapted to any subject.
Woolf said the non-invasive sensors replicate what top-notch human teachers do in the classroom to engage their students. ‘Master teachers devote as much time working on a student’s motivation as they do on straight teaching,’ she said. ‘They understand that students who feel anxious or depressed don’t assimilate information properly.’
The sensors they are developing include a camera that views facial expressions. Woolf said certain looks on student’s face or how they tilt or hold their head are strong indicators of their level of interest in what they are doing. There is also a posture-sensing device in the seat of a chair to measure movement. This measures the amount of fidgeting, or stillness, other indicators of interest and concentration on the task.
There is also a pressure-sensitive computer mouse that can tell how hard the user is pushing down. Previous research has shown that users who find an online task frustrating often apply significantly more pressure to the mouse than those who do not find the same task frustrating.
In addition, a wireless skin conductance wristband worn by the student shows how activated the person is. A certain amount of arousal is a motivator toward learning and tends to accompany significant, new, or attention-getting events.
The mathematical subject matter is presented to the students during a period of up to two hours. During each session, the computer analyses the information it gets from the sensors and adjusts how it presents the information. Sometimes, that means halting the program and offering the student an alternative activity to reignite interests. Or it could involve having the computer go back and revisit material that the student has failed to master.
Sensors also pick up is when students try to ‘game the program’ by randomly choosing answers or hurrying through the problems. When that behaviour is detected, the computer tutor responds, in a friendly manner, and asks them to slow down or read more carefully.