University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy


The Next Generation of Computer Coaches

Evan Frodermann
Evan Frodermann
Richard Anderson

Evan Frodermann is a post doc in the Physics Education Group, working with Ken Heller in a cross- discipline collaboration between the School and the College of Education and Human Development. Frodermann is helping to develop the second generation of computer coaches for use in physics classrooms. These computer coaches are designed to help teaching the skill of problem-solving in a physics context.

Using the cognitive apprenticeship model, problem-solving is "modeled" by the instructor in lecture using physics problems, practiced by students with guidance or "coaching" in discussion or labs using new problems, and practiced without direct guidance by in homework called "fading." Yet there is often a disconnect between seeing a problem solved and mastering problems in their homework. "Students spend a lot of time doing homework. What is lacking is coaching, which helps walk the students through the various steps to solving the problem." The goal is to develop an online tool that will let students take as much time as they need in order for the student’s time to be used more efficiently and effectively.

The first version of computer coaches developed by the education group was implemented in classrooms over three years in introductory mechanics courses. "We looked at how students interacted with the coaches and found that when we give the students a choice to use the online coaches, they like it." The group discovered that there were three tiers of users, those who were confident and felt they did not need the coaches, those who used the coaches a lot at the beginning of the semester but stopped using the coaches, and those that were heavy coach users throughout the full course. For the heavy users, the PER group found a full letter grade improvement in their final exam problem scores as compared to students from earlier years who were not coached.

Frodermann says that they want to design a tool that supplements the experience that students have now. "Students get one hour with a TA who also has 18 other students. That is three minutes per students, and maybe six minutes in lab. In the tutor room it’s ten minutes. There’s a time crunch. You know you need help, but there’s a lot of competition for help. The focus then becomes about getting it done rather than internalizing it and really learning it.” Frodermann says the coach allows students to get extra guided practice at their leisure, in a relaxed pressure-free environment.

While the first version showed a lot of promise, there were some limitations. The first limitation was in customization. The coach questions were written for a traditional textbook used by the University of Minnesota. Frodermann says that this does not really reflect the way physics is taught in all textbooks nor by all instructors. The coaches didn’t give the instructors the freedom to adapt the coaches to their courses by changing symbols or other physics representations to be consistent with their style and materials. He explains that unless the coaches are more flexible, it is unlikely that they will be used widely. He is currently building a more flexible, customizable version of the coach that can be adapted by an instructor in a reasonable time even if they have few programming experience or skills.

The group is also working to improve the way the coach interacts with the student, so that it will be more user-friendly. They will be soon collaborating with an expert from the School of Design to make the interface more appealing to students. Frodermann says that the computer coaches have the potential to be used in areas outside physics as well. "As we develop this tool we have realized that it could be used in many disciplines, because it’s broad, not specifically built for physics, but for problem solving in general."