Neil Heffernan and ASSISTments: $35 Million and Counting


Computer Science

Online learning program has evolved into a powerful research tool

When Neil Heffernan, the William Smith Dean's Professor of Computer Science and director of the Learning Sciences and Technologies Program, developed the online homework platform ASSISTments in 2003 with his wife Cristina Heffernan, he had two goals in mind: One was to help math teachers provide immediate feedback to their students while also giving those same teachers actionable data to use in class. The other was to create a shared scientific instrument that allows researchers to conduct randomized controlled trials in authentic settings. 

As a tool for teachers, ASSISTments, offered for free, provides feedback to students as they work on math problems, and it gives teachers a window into how well their students—individually and as a group—understand the material, allowing them to more effectively use their class time. It also lets teachers help other teachers by sharing homework assignments and hints on the platform using crowdsourcing to leverage best practices in education across the country. Last year ASSISTments was used by more than 2,500 teaches in 46 states and 14 countries. In 2011 a randomized controlled trial was conducted on ASSISTments that showed the platform does indeed help students learn better.

In addition, ASSISTments empowers researchers to conduct their own randomized controlled trials and analyze educational data at scale. The ASSISTments Research Collaborative has been funded many times to support researchers both at WPI and at other institutions such as Notre Dame, SRI, UIC, Harvard, Stanford and CMU, to conduct trials to determine the types of feedback most useful for students using online programs.  In partnership with ASSISTments, researchers can access tools and templates to reduce the time it takes to conduct research, expediting the development of new ideas to benefit students and teachers.

Heffernan has received more than $35 million in federal grants for his work in learning sciences and with ASSISTments, in part because he is relentless in pursuing funding from a number of agencies, though he says he “tries more and fails more” in submitting grant applications,. In the last few years, he has received nearly $750,000 from the National Science Foundation for infrastructure; $2 million from the Schmidt Foundation to expand the scope and availability of the tool;  a pair of grants totaling $7 million from the Institute for Educational Services  (part of the U.S. Department of Education) and nearly $8 million from the  Department of Education  to scale the program to schools nationwide. 

The ASSISTments Foundation was incorporated in 2019 as a nonprofit organization, with Heffernan as its founder and board president.