Cognitive Tutor by Carnegie Learning

Once a week, NB brings the computers on wheels (COWS) into her classroom so her geometry students can use a program called Cognitive Tutor that’s designed to accompany the textbook being used in her class.  Both are produced by Carnegie Learning.  Although I have never encountered the textbooks before, this is the second time I’ve seen the Cognitive Tutor software in use.  The first was a middle school classroom in a suburban city.  Although my current setting differs in many ways, being a semi-urban high school, I have observed students responding to the program similarly in both situations.

Cognitive Tutor is a program designed to give immediate feedback while students practice their math skills.  Student progress is displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen at all times.  Students can see how they progress through the unit.  They are also told immediately whether each small step of a problem is correct or incorrect.  This appears to be very motivating to students, but also has some drawbacks.  While the students want to see their progress advance, I often hear them make comments about being frustrated when a series of mistakes causes the progress bars to move backwards.  The bar moves backwards because more practice problems have just been assigned to the student.  The nature of the comments leads me to believe that the students feel like they are being punished: “Oh no, now I’ve got to do more,” or “This is so stupid/frustrating!”

A second apparent problem is with the “hint” option.  If students are uncertain, they can click a Hint button that gives them a clue as to how they should proceed.  Using this button rarely does not impact their progress bar.  But regular use seems to be interpreted by the system as a lack of knowledge, and more practice problems are assigned.

Today I saw an example of how this particular feature created a major problem for a student.  He is working well ahead of most of his peers, and at the beginning of class started a unit on proofs.  Early on, he encountered a problem involved making a flowchart proof.  Although this material had already been covered in class, and he could articulate all the steps in the proof to me verbally, he spent the entire class period trying to understand how the program wanted him to communicate his knowledge.  He had to click on the Hint button many times, and read through several long help documents.  Both the teacher and I spend considerable time attempting to help him make sense of the program’s expectations.  He never managed to complete the first proof, and by the end of class was incredibly frustrated.  Because of the penalties incurred in using the Hint button and his trial-and-error attempts to communicate with the program, he had incurred so many additional practice problems that it appeared he had lost credit for all the work he had done at the beginning of class.  He was also facing a long set of similar flowchart proofs.  Fortunately, Cognitive Tutor allows the teacher to manually move a student to a new place in the unit sequence, so NB advanced the student beyond the flowchart proof section.  This seems like a major drawback to the software, but I am not sure how it might be designed differently.

One of the difficulties with this situation was that neither the teacher nor I had any experience trying to enter flowchart proofs into the system.  We were effectively useless to this student.  I was not aware that the teacher could allow him to skip ahead, and find myself wondering now why she allowed him to struggle for so long.  I am not sure this was a bad thing, as he clearly is very tenacious and never actually gave up on the problem.  I probably would have cut him off earlier, after perhaps 15 minutes.  Perhaps she felt like because he was so far ahead, she had the luxury of letting him put real effort into trying to make it work.

The lesson for me, though, was that even with a designed and tested program, it’s important for the instructor to be able to complete all the problems the students might encounter.  Had either the teacher or I spent time previously practicing making these flowcharts in Cognitive Tutor, we could have provided useful hints.

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