NSF Renews $25 Million for Pitt, CMU to Study How People Learn

Issue Date: 
May 11, 2009
Charles PerfettiCharles Perfetti

The National Science Foundation has renewed a five-year, $25 million grant to continue the work of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (PSLC), founded by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh in 2004 to study how people learn and how to use those findings to develop teaching tools that can foster consistently high achievement in the nation’s classrooms.

Unlike most scientific research on learning, which occurs in the laboratory, the PSLC conducts its research in the classrooms of more than 50 schools and colleges across the country, including schools in New York City, Pittsburgh, Miami, Omaha, and Seattle.

These schools comprise what the PSLC calls LearnLab, www.learnlab.org/. LearnLab enables education researchers to see how students respond to lessons and innovations in a place better than any laboratory—in their own classrooms with their own teachers.

“We’re exploding an old Catch-22 in education research: that is, results of experiments done in laboratories don’t translate well into school environments and the results of experiments done in schools generally aren’t rigorous or trustworthy enough to pass on to others,” said Kenneth Koedinger, professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon and codirector of the PSLC with Pitt’s Charles Perfetti.

This research can occur without disrupting the classroom thanks to the use of computer tutors. Working in partnership with Carnegie Learning Inc., whose Cognitive Tutor® math software already is in use in thousands of schools nationwide, PSLC researchers are able to gather detailed information about how students respond to lessons and homework. Subsequent analysis of this data helps researchers understand the different learning styles and habits of students and identify those lessons that are most effective in helping students learn.

“We are trying to uncover deep principles that produce learning that is robust—learning that is long-lasting and applicable to new situations,” said Perfetti, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and director of Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC).

The computer tutors cover a range of subjects, such as algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, Chinese, and English as a second language. But the PSLC researchers have gone beyond these standard subjects to include tutoring on lifelong learning skills. For instance, they’ve developed a help-seeking tutor that interacts with the Carnegie Learning® Geometry Cognitive Tutor®. The help-seeking tutor determines whether students fail to ask for help appropriately—or are too quick to ask for help—by machine analysis of their normal learning interactions.

“We have demonstrated in a randomized, controlled ‘in vivo’ experiment that the help-seeking tutor leads to lasting effects,” Koedinger said.

Eventually, PSLC research might lead to the demise of what students have long dreaded—the test. Computer tutors, they have found, can constantly assess what a student has and hasn’t learned and even suggest exercises to improve areas of weakness, Koedinger said.

“In other words,” he said, “we do not need to interrupt students to give a test in order to find out what their learning strengths and weaknesses are.”

The PSLC is continuing a tradition of innovative education research, combining the strengths of Carnegie Mellon and Pitt in cognitive and developmental psychology, human-computer interaction, intelligent tutoring systems, machine learning, and language technologies.

At Pitt, LRDC founding director Robert Glaser and past director Lauren Resnick established programs of learning research and instructional development as twin pillars of educational innovation. At Carnegie Mellon, in the 1990s, Professor John R. Anderson, a psychologist and computer scientist, led a team, including Koedinger, that created an intelligent computer tutor to teach algebra to high school students. The program actually thought like a teenager and was so successful that Carnegie Learning was spun out to develop computer tutors as a commercial product.

“The work of the PSLC is critical and very timely as we reevaluate effective education in the United States,” said Steve Ritter, cofounder and chief scientist at Carnegie Learning. “Improving student performance, particularly in math and science, is more than a social initiative; it’s a national economic agenda as we strive to compete in a global economy by arming our students with 21st century learning skills.”

Carnegie Learning, Inc., assists PSLC researchers with running experiments using its Cognitive Tutors and with collecting and analyzing data from student use of the systems. As part of the grant renewal, the company has committed to working with researchers to analyze data from more than 100,000 students, representing a broad cross-section of student background and ability.