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Vanderbilt professors find that students learn by tutoring virtual peers

Education Week recently reported that educators have long held that peer tutoring can help students learn and emerging research on students working with computer characters points to one possible reason why: Teaching begets learning for the teachers.

Researchers at Stanford University’s AAA Lab and Vanderbilt University’s Teachable Agents Group call it the “protégé effect,” which posits that students will work harder, reason better and ultimately understand more by learning to teach someone else—even a virtual “teachable agent”—than they will when learning for themselves.

Most studies of peer-mediated learning and reciprocal teaching focus on improvements for the students being taught, rather than the advantages for the student-teacher. Teachable Agents researchers instead study how the act of teaching, both in students’ effort and reflection on thinking, improves their learning.

The research teams started talking about teachable agents nearly a decade ago, in response to too much student dependency on answer feedback in virtual tutoring programs. Rather than understanding a concept, a student tended to try answers randomly until one worked. Gautam Biswas, a computer science professor and head of the Vanderbilt Teaching Agents Project told Education Week “We wanted to build systems that could help students learn with understanding”.

So far, all of the experiments have been relatively small-scale—a few schools or grades at a time—but they have explored dozens of permutations of how students from kindergarten through college interact with computer agents.

More recently, Mr. Biswas added a mentor agent, “Mr. Davis,” to help student-teachers learn new reasoning strategies to teach their characters. The classroom teachers also receive feedback on students’ common mistakes, so that they can discuss problem areas outside the virtual environment.

“Teaching seems to have a positive effect on learning and on top of that, giving meta-cognitive feedback also improves learning,” Biswas told Education Week.

This year, the Vanderbilt lab is exploring ways to help students transfer reasoning strategies to other subjects through schoolwide projects, while the AAA Lab has started to compare the protégé effect for students teaching both real and virtual students; studies from both labs are due in coming months.

Douglas H. Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt and developer of Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, a popular reciprocal-learning program, said he has seen similar benefits in his own studies of real-life students involved in peer tutoring in math. In those studies, high-achieving students, as well as tutees, benefited, which Mr. Fuchs said could mean “there really is something important for the ‘teacher’ if the context is smartly set up and children are provided with appropriate training, guidance [and] direction.”