Administrator Magazine
Scholastic Administrator is a must-read resource for 240,000 of today's results-driven school leaders. Every issue features leadership for education executives, insight and analysis into what's next in education, and reporting on cutting-edge technologies in real life applications.

Software That Reads Kids' Emotions

Today's tutoring programs are redefining learning by telling teachers what students need, when they need it. 

By the time Barbara Delaney arrives in her classroom in the morning, she already knows what problems her students experienced the night before when completing their homework, and she has adjusted her lesson plans for the day.

Last year, Delaney, a sixth-grade math teacher at Massachusetts's Bellingham Memorial Middle School, began using ASSISTments, a Web-based tutoring program designed for math students in grades 4-10 by research professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute ( The program offers teachers personalized tutoring and a detailed evaluation of student progress.

"As a teacher, it completely changes the way I manage my daily class," says Delaney. "I am getting formative assessments every single day in a data report before I ever see my students. That changes the whole culture of my classroom. Students are owning their learning, and I know exactly where everybody is, which is a huge tool for me, having so many special ed students."

While tutoring programs have been around for decades, today's programs bear little resemblance to their forerunners. Some can now distinguish student emotion and attentiveness with help from animated characters or avatars. Others sense students' metacognitive learning strategies and motivation capabilities, painting a broader picture of their academic capabilities as learners. They can also adapt to a student's learning style, offering multiple learning approaches. In essence, they're redefining the learning process and the role of the classroom teacher.

Customization Is Key

Delaney uses the tutorial in several ways: for pre-unit testing, which helps determine which students possess the skills needed for the next unit or lesson; as a practice tool, enabling students to independently review math problems in preparation for state testing; and to assess student progress through pre- and post-testing.

She says roughly 70 percent of her students using the "tutor" have shown improvement. "It's made a huge change in the way I'm teaching and what I see in my classroom as far as progress," she says. "It's made me a better teacher, more in control of what's going on and more tuned in to who needs what and when."

Neil T. Heffernan, an associate professor and co-director of the learning sciences and technologies graduate program at Worcester Polytechnic, led the research team that developed the tutorial, now operating in 45 school districts throughout New England.

Among the program's key features, he says, is customization: Teachers can develop their own questions. Likewise, it also tracks how much assistance students need and enables parents to check on their child's learning progress. Since it breaks down math problems into steps, teachers can identify exactly where students went wrong. Teachers can also project a report on a whiteboard, revealing to students how well the entire class performed on a given assignment.

Heffernan says low-knowledge students really benefit from step-by-step feedback. But high-knowledge students perform better with less guidance. "They're actually better off being told, ‘No, you're wrong. Read this complete explanation and then we'll move on to the next question,'" he says. "Low-knowledge students have trouble with the explanation."

Andrew Burnett, a seventh-grade math teacher at Millbury Jr./Sr. High School in Massachusetts, tried the tutorial after using many others in the past. While others were "rigid," he says, this tutor helps him pinpoint areas where students are weak or strong and can individualize instruction where students need the most help. He no longer has to give quizzes to assess their skill or understanding.

In the future, he hopes that online tutors can incorporate videos made by classroom teachers that focus on problem solving. He says some teachers have a unique teaching style or approach. Students who are accustomed to that style may be more responsive to their teacher's video versus a one-size-fits-all.

A Tutor Who Gets It

Another tutoring system that adapts to student needs is Cognitive Tutor, which provides rich problem-solving environments and real-time assistance for a wide variety of subjects, including language arts, math, and science ( Introduced in the 1990s, the system combines cognitive psychology research on student learning with advanced artificial intelligence technology, explains Ken Koedinger, professor at the Human Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Koedinger, who helped develop the system, says Cognitive Tutor Algebra was tested in public schools in a yearlong study. "With particular disadvantaged populations in urban schools, we've seen quite dramatic outcomes, like 50 to 100 percent better performance in real-world problem solving and 10 to 25 percent improvement on standardized tests."

Meanwhile, Koedinger is designing help-seeking tutors who would assist students in determining when to ask for help as they solve challenging problems ( After analyzing data from tutor usage, he says, some students ask for too much assistance while others are too proud, never asking for any help. Either way, student learning is negatively affected, he says.

Reading Emotions?

Other tutoring systems have taken a huge step forward, well beyond the simple Q&A approach.

Wayang Outpost, an intelligent-tutoring math system, senses a student's emotions and attentiveness, using animated characters and multimedia to engage students and adjust feedback ("The systems can measure a student's face and emotions, whether the student is eager, frustrated, or confident," explains Beverly Woolf, a research professor in computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who developed Wayang. "Measuring both the cognition and state of the student, the tutor will respond differently by providing a different message about the student's affect."

After Wayang was tested for five years, mostly in high schools, she says, the results showed improved confidence for girls and for students with learning challenges. The system is credited for helping between 10 and 20 percent more students pass state standardized tests.

She says the big difference between tutoring systems then and now is their ability to personalize. As an example, she points to a third grader who may have trouble translating a word problem into a math formula: "Sally bought five items, each for $5, and another three items at $3 each. How much did Sally spend?" Wayang will sense the student's difficulty and try different techniques, such as translating the problem into Spanish or speaking it aloud.

At that point, the student will also see the problem solved through animation. The system may display a picture of dollar bills, then add them up. Items may also be highlighted in different colors. She says the program offers a variety of ways to reach "unreachable" students.

"We think we're addressing math anxiety because we can see that confidence goes up and frustration goes down for low-achieving students," Woolf says. But animation doesn't motivate everyone. "It can bore high-achieving students and turn them off."

For many years, fifth and sixth graders at Frontier Regional and Union 38 districts in Deerfield, Massachusetts, have been using Wayang, says Diana Campbell, coordinator for technology, grants, and special projects.

"It's more in tune with students, whether they're looking for verbal or visual cues," she says, adding that it also highlights words on-screen that are spoken out loud and visually demonstrates how to solve a math problem. "I've heard teachers say that it's very complementary to state testing and is very good practice as students move into testing weeks."

But no matter how intuitive or intelligent tutor programs are, they still require kids to be sedentary for another hour or two after sitting all day in school. That prompted Woolf to explore more creative learning programs.

One possibility is showing math problems on a large screen with answers projected on the floor. Woolf says students would step on correct answers, moving around, almost like dancing. Another idea is electronic T-shirts. Students would play tag, running around and touching one another's shirts to find out who is wearing the right answer. In five years, she believes students will access tutors on mobile phones, completing 5 or 10 minutes of a learning system as they walk home from school, ride the bus, or wait in line at a store. Until then, she says, tutoring systems will continue to evolve, putting the needs of students first and better preparing them to function in the real world.

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.