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Woolf, Arroyo Receive Department of Education Grant for Study of MathSpring, a Smart Tutoring System that Coaches Frustrated Students

Beverly Woolf, Ivon Arroyo

The U.S. Department of Education has recently funded an efficacy study of MathSpring, a research-­based, game-like intelligent math tutor developed by Beverly Woolf, a research professor at the College of Information and Computer Sciences, UMass Amherst (CICS), and Ivon Arroyo, currently an associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

They designed the program to provide a more personalized approach to mathematical learning, one that tracks and responds not only to a student’s performance, but their motivation and emotional state. “Emotion is a key factor in learning, and often the driving force behind whether or not a student will succeed,” Woolf explains. “Digital teaching systems like MathSpring provide new ways to address these issues, including how to tailor interventions to support student self-regulation, and how to encourage students to feel more positive about their learning experience.”

MathSpring, which was developed with support from a $2M National Science Foundation grant, supports student motivation through animated learning companions that can be tailored to the individual student. The companions become active when the system detects emotional states like boredom and frustration, providing advice, assistance, and messages designed to inspire confidence and resilience.

“Our research with MathSpring shows that the use of affective digital characters that act as learning companions reduces frustration and increases subject interest in general, but especially for girls, students with disabilities, and students with low performance” says Arroyo. “Encouraging these students is important because success in mathematics and science strongly predicts long-term well-being and economic welfare.”

Now, Woolf and Arroyo will be evaluating the effectiveness of the program in partnership with Mingyu Feng, a senior research associate at WestEd, a research agency that works with education communities to promote excellence and achieve equity in learning. The grant from the Department of Education will provide funding for a four-year study, focusing on teachers and their classrooms in Massachusetts. CICS and WPI will together receive approximately $1 million as part of the grant. The results of this study aim to provide additional insights into the ways in which intelligent technologies can improve K-12 mathematical learning, and may help to improve student engagement with the subject.

In 2013, Woolf was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow by President Barack Obama in recognition of her leadership in designing software tutors. Her work combines artificial intelligence, computer network technology and multimedia features in digital tutoring software for teaching mathematics according to an individual student’s needs.

Arroyo specializes in learning sciences, computer science, and educational and cognitive psychology. Her expertise is in the design of novel technologies for learning and assessment for K-12 students studying mathematics. Currently at WPI, she will start as an associate professor in CICS in January of 2020.