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Internet Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Students: 1226197

Principal Investigator: Kenneth Heller
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Leonardo Hsu
Organization: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

The ability to solve problems in a variety of contexts is a major goal of education. However, providing students with effective instruction in problem solving by making individualized guidance and feedback available to them during practice is a difficult and potentially expensive task. Moving students to be more expert-like takes time; thus any instructional tool must operate over an adequate time span and integrated into existing instruction. Furthermore, no standardized, easy-to-use method for assessing students’ problem-solving skills exists, hindering progress in improving problem-solving instruction.

This project aims to help overcome these difficulties by creating a set of web-delivered computer coaches to provide students with effective coaching while they practice solving problems that span the content of a yearlong introductory physics course. To make it possible for these coaches to be useful to instructors, the software is configured so that instructors can easily change the problems, the feedback, and the structure of the solution to more closely fit their instructional emphasis using a graphical interface. In this project, student problem solving is being analyzed using a rubric developed in a previous project together with standard tests of conceptual and attitudinal change.
The structure of the computer coaches is based on research from cognitive science and physics education. They are designed to 1) be highly interactive, (2) make explicit the thought processes necessary for effective problem solving, (3) give students practice in the basic cognitive functions necessary for effective problem solving, (4) provide students with individualized coaching based on careful instructional design, (5) accommodate the multiple solution paths students might choose for solving a problem, and (6) be adaptable by individual physics instructors to their own tastes and local conditions. A previous project has shown that it is possible to develop coaches with such attributes for mechanics. This project (1) develops a new underlying software structure for those coaches to make them easier to modify, (2) uses the new software structure to build coaches for electricity and magnetism to span the full year of introductory physics, and (3) measures student progress toward more expert-like problem solving over a full year.

Intellectual merit:
Problem solving is one of the most important goals and tools of an introductory physics course. Moving students toward more expert-like problem solving can make the conceptual content of these courses more intelligible and useful. Because of the reproducible, fine-grained problem-solving instruction delivered by the coaches, the proposed work contributes to the knowledge base on how to design effective instruction (computer based or not) to help students improve their problem-solving skills. It is a step toward achieving the promise of using the web to supplement human instruction by providing on-demand coaching. The coaches also provide a model of the application of research from diverse fields to the production of a practical tool to improve student learning with the current educational system.

Broader impacts:
Because problem solving is central to science and engineering, the coaches and the rubric have the potential not only to become widely used, but also to spawn similar efforts in other STEM fields, and across multiple disciplines. This project demonstrates how technology can be used to improve education by providing students with a more interactive and individualized instruction and opportunities to integrate effective instruction outside with that occurring in the classroom. This can be especially important to students for whom standard instruction is difficult to obtain such as distance-education students. The assessment strategy developed in this project also contributes to the knowledge base of assessing complex and meaningful abilities such as problem solving in the authentic setting of the classroom. Finally, because good problem-solving skills, especially a logical expert-like framework for attacking novel problems in a systematic way, are important to all citizens in our modern, rapidly-changing society, this project contributes to the preparation of the citizenry to face the new challenges of the future.

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