Best Practices: Cognitive Tutor multiplies students’ success rate

More than 70 percent of Denver Public School students who had repeatedly failed math passed after using the Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor in summer school last year.

Glenn Bruckhart, secondary mathematics specialist for the district, said it recently became mandatory for Denver high school students to pass algebra and geometry in order to graduate, and a number of students in the district were not doing well.

To help the students learn better, Bruckhart decided to have teachers try a math software program. After reviewing a number of programs, he chose Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor, a full math curriculum complete with software, looseleaf textbooks, a teacher’s manual, an assessment guide, and teacher training.

Teachers used the program to teach 240 summer school students, most of whom had previously failed algebra. The students put in four hours a day for a month toward earning the one-semester algebra credit they needed to graduate.

Robert Longo, president and chief executive officer of Carnegie Learning, said, “Over 70 percent passed for the first timeand over 50 percent got an A or B.”

“I thought these were very good [results], since these were students who had tried algebra and not passed,” Bruckhart said. “The software was one piece … one of the factors” that contributed to so many students finally passing algebra, he said.

The fact that it was a summer school course probably had a large impact on the grades as well, Bruckhart acknowledged. Students in summer school are there at their own will, they are not surrounded by their friends like they are in school, and the student-teacher ratio is much higher.

“I’m not about to go out and say the software does it,” Bruckhart said. But the results were encouraging enough for the district to try the Cognitive Tutor program year-round. Denver School District is running a pilot program at West High School to test how effective it is in teaching math during the regular school year.

So far, Bruckhart said, though the results have been encouraging, they haven’t been “as impressive as the summer school” results.

Cammie Houpt, a math teacher at West High School, said, “I’m not so sure that the grades are higher, but [the students] know more and remember it longer” after using Cognitive Tutor.

“I have taught all levels of algebra for years, and I’m very impressed. It works,” Houpt said. “The kids like it and they respond to it.”

She said algebra typically involves a problem, graphs, and equations, and the software has the student solve those things simultaneously. “When you try to teach those things separately, they get lost,” she said. The software “gives [students] the whole package at once.”

She said the students who have used the Cognitive Tutor appear more enthusiastic and have a greater understanding of the concepts.

The software incorporates a math curriculum with cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence research done by Carnegie Mellon University. Cognitive psychology examines thinking patterns to better understand how people learn.

“Some of the breakthroughs in … the cognitive research of how people learn is really at work here,” Longo said.

From mouse clicks to mistakes to the amount of time spent solving problems, the software records information about the student and then builds a personalized cognitive model based on that information.

The program starts to understand where the gaps are in the particular learner’s understanding, Longo said. “It can distinguish between careless mistakes and actual learning deficits,” he said.

The “intelligent” tutor will offer hints and help when it senses the student needs it. The computer will not let students progress through the material until they have mastered the content.

“The system knows how to manage the progression of the learner,” Longo said. Every time students use the computer program, they start exactly where they left off.

What attracted Bruckhart to the Cognitive Tutor was its focus on applied math. “Mathematics has traditionally payed attention to numbers in abstraction,” he said.

The program includes built-in support, so teachers are able to spend more time with the students that need it most. “I can have 25 kids in the class, and I’m not torn apart because they can ask the computer questions,” Houpt said.

Carnegie Learning

Denver Public Schools

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