Computer Tutors Prod Students to Ask for Help

Ask a friend to meet you at a restaurant in a city he or she has never visited, and it’s entirely possible the friend will get lost along the way. You might expect the friend to pull out a map, turn on the car’s navigation system, or even ask a gas station attendant for directions. You wouldn’t expect your lost friend to wander around town, knocking on random restaurant doors until eventually giving up and hopping in a taxi.

Yet research suggests this random searching and reluctance to seek basic help is exactly how high school students often approach problem-solving.

“Students often misuse help,” said Ido Roll, a postdoctoral researcher at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia and a member of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center. “Either they don’t ask for help at all, or they ask for all the help there is.”

In a series of studies presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting, held here April 8-12, researchers from the Vancouver-based university and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that students typically will go to extreme lengths to avoid asking for help when working on computer-based tutoring programs. Yet if they learn to think about when and how to ask for help, they are more likely to avoid simply cheating to get answers.

In the classroom, it can be difficult to determine why a student does or doesn’t ask for help. Yet when students use an online program, the computer can record how fast and how often a student tries to solve a problem, uses a dictionary, or asks for help. In several studies since 2006, Mr. Roll and his research partners at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute—assistant professor Vincent Aleven, senior systems scientist Bruce M. McLaren, and professor Kenneth R. Koedinger—mined data from math-tutoring programs to gauge how 10th and 11th grade students used a help button, which offers progressively more in-depth hints and eventually gives the answer to the question.

“If you get one error, 25 percent of students will ask for help; 75 percent of them will try again. And the pattern persists after any consecutive number of errors; after five, six attempts, I am still more likely to try again than to ask for help,” Mr. Roll said.

“Across hundreds of thousands of actions in multiple studies, we never get more than 30 percent of students who ask for help; they always try to do it again themselves,” he said. “When we asked students [why they didn’t ask for help], they said their parents told them [essentially] ‘real men don’t ask for help.’ ”

By the time students finally did ask for help, the data showed they had given up trying to solve the problem and were aiming to cheat; Mr. Roll said 82 percent of students who used the hint tool did not stop to read it, but instead clicked through multiple hints to get to the answer.

Thinking About Help

In a 2008 studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader in the same series of studies, Mr. Roll and other researchers found students often “gamed the system” through guessing and looking for the answer when they felt frustrated or disliked the subject.

 

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