Research shows role-reversal helps students learn better

Nov. 10, 2010, 2:01 a.m.

According to Stanford researchers, one way to improve the quality of education is to turn things upside down. The Teachable Agents project, currently in progress at Stanford’s AAA Lab, suggests that students learn best when they’re teaching someone else, even if the other person doesn’t really exist.

The study, a collaborative effort with Vanderbilt University’s Teaching Agents Group, has its roots in an idea developed by AAA Lab director Daniel Schwartz and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University, Gautam Biswas and John Bransford. They wanted to create a software that used the “protégé effect” — the phenomenon that individuals learn better when they’re teaching others versus studying on their own — in second life.

Research shows role-reversal helps students learn better
Students study by teaching Betty's Brain and other virtual "students" (Courtesy of Doris Chin).

The latest version features virtual agents that students can customize much like an avatar and interactive activities where users can quiz their “students,” such as Betty’s Brain — a program that uses a correctable concept map to represent Betty’s thoughts and answers.

While the cognitive benefits of this method of learning have long been accepted, Schwartz said he and his team also discovered that the software had emotional advantages.

“It doesn’t hurt them [the students] very much if they get something wrong,” he said. “They feel kind of sorry for it, and they feel like they let it down, so they try harder.”

Although parents of the elementary school students who participated in the AAA studies expressed concerns that the games would distract students from homework, Schwartz said the software should not induce any form of addictive behavior.

“It’s not the sort of thing where you spend thousands of hours on it,” he said. “It’s the thing where after six to eight hours, it’s done its job. It doesn’t replace things. It makes them better…it’s not a video game.”

The popularity of the software among school officials is already taking flight. Researchers have worked with schools in four Peninsula schools — Milpitas, Menlo Park, Los Altos and Sunnyvale — and Schwartz said he is starting to get requests from school districts in San Diego.

But the researchers are a bit hesitant to accept the offers right away, because introducing the program to San Diego would require a larger-scale implementation. Right now, Schwartz said, the research team does not have the manpower to help get the project started in an entire school district. In fact, the work that they have done with schools is limited to a few classrooms or grades at a time.

“It will take some thought,” Schwartz said.

For now, the researchers are working on ways to assure that the software can “exist without constant footwork,” that is, without the need for researchers to be there every step of the way to assure that nothing goes wrong.

Teachable Agents is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education.

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