December 01, 2010

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) today announced that it is a partner in the National Center for Cognition and Mathematics Instruction (NCCMI), established recently with a $10 million award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The virtual center will apply the latest cognitive science principles to redesign a widely used middle school mathematics curriculum called the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) and conduct rigorous research to determine how the modifications impact student learning. This is the first and only center of its kind in the nation.

As a partner, WPI will receive $500,000 over five years to use ASSISTments, an intelligent tutoring system developed at the university, to study how best to space out practice opportunities and feedback to maximize student learning. Neil T. Heffernan, associate professor of computer science at WPI and principal investigator for WPI’s portion of the grant, will work with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Temple University, and the University of Illinois. WestEd, a national nonprofit research, development, and service agency headquartered in San Francisco, is the lead institution on the new center, which brings together experts in cognition, instruction, assessment, research design and measurement, mathematics education, and teacher professional development from the aforementioned institutions, as well as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Pearson, and Apple Computer Inc.

“The federal government has identified the improvement of STEM education at the K-12 level as a critical area of investment because the nation’s economic future will only prosper if we have a well-educated and literate work force in those critical areas,” said Massachusetts Representative James P. McGovern.“It is reassuring to know that WPI has built a smarter educational tool for the purposes of improving math and science teaching. The ASSISTments program packages the knowledge and expertise of cognitive scientists in order to help teachers more effectively assess and instruct their students, thereby allowing the technology to become a lever for our students.”

Heffernan’s research will focus on CMP materials that are currently being used nationwide in grades 6 to 8. Studies have demonstrated that this period, which corresponds to the transition from arithmetic to algebra, is when many students begin to fall behind in mathematics.” ASSISTments, the web-based tutoring system being used in the research, was developed over the past decade by a research team headed by Heffernan. The system, which is being used in 25 school districts across New England, can simultaneously help students master mathematical concepts and assess their progress toward learning outcomes. Using ASSISTments, Heffernan’s research team has already conducted pilot studies that demonstrated that learning can increase if students get immediate feedback from the software while they work, and that the system is able to assess how well students are learning and provide additional practice for those who seem to need it.

“I look forward to working as part of this new national center to try to see how best to apply cognitive science principles that suggest that it is important to space out learning opportunities for students,” said Heffernan. “With ASSISTments, we have a tool that allows us to conduct such studies while at the same time providing students feedback as they work. Laboratory studies have shown that frequent practice is important to ensuring long-term retention. Our goal is to figure out how to apply such principles in real classrooms to raise student achievement.”

About the National Center for Cognition and Mathematics Instruction

Led by WestEd, a national nonprofit research, development, and service agency headquartered in San Francisco, NCCMI is applying research on cognition to systematically revise an existing curriculum for grades 6 to 8; creating, testing, revising, and disseminating guidelines and exemplars for the design or revision of research-based mathematics curricula; conducting supplementary research to inform practice in the area of mathematics curriculum, instruction and assessment; establishing a diverse community of users to learn from and apply the center’s research; providing national leadership for the use of knowledge related to cognition and the application of research-based design principles for mathematics curriculum and instruction; and disseminating products, models, research tools, and other results through publication, presentations and technical assistance.

About WPI's ASSISTments System

ASSISTments (the name blends of tutoring “assistance” with student “assessment”) is an intelligent tutoring and authoring system developed with more than $9 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies. The system, which was cited in the National Educational Technology Plan that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released earlier this month, helps students learn any domain (middle school mathematics and science are current focus areas at WPI, but teachers have used ASSISTments to develop content libraries for English, AP statistics, and French, among other subjects). The system presents students with problems, and offers carefully structured assistance, as needed, to keep them moving forward. The heart of the system is a platform (developed with funding from the Office of Naval Research) that enables teachers to write questions and create assistance (hints). ASSISTments not only helps students learn, but provides teachers with detailed reports on student progress, obviating the need for excessive student testing. Moreover, WPI has conducted randomized controlled studies that show that use of ASSISTments leads to reliable higher learning gains. In 2009-10, ASSISTments was used for mathematics education by 25 school districts and over 2,100 teachers and 7,500 students.