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Student Well-Being

Digital Tools Evolving to Track Students’ Emotions, Mindsets

By Benjamin Herold — January 11, 2016 3 min read
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The race is on to provide students with personalized learning experiences based on their individual emotions, cognitive processes, “mindsets,” and character and personality traits.

Academic researchers, for example, are busy developing computerized tutoring systems that gather information on students’ facial expressions, heart rate, posture, pupil dilation, and more. Those data are then analyzed for signs of student engagement, boredom, or confusion, leading a computer avatar to respond with encouragement, empathy, or maybe a helpful hint.

“The idea is that emotions have a powerful influence on cognition,” said Sidney D’Mello, an assistant professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. The increasing power and affordability of eye-tracking, speech-recognition, and other technologies have made it possible for researchers to investigate those connections more widely and deeply, he said.

“Ten years ago, there were things you could do in a lab that you couldn’t do in the messiness of the real world,” D’Mello said. “Now, you can get a reasonable proxy of a student’s heart rate from a webcam.”

Still, widely available classroom applications of such work might be a decade or more away.

More prevalent now are digital resources that seek to measure and support the development and self-identification of such “noncognitive competencies” as self-management, perseverance, and a “growth mindset” that recognizes skills can improve with effort. The U.S. Department of Education’s new National Education Technology Plan, for example, officially calls for more work to develop such tools.

Organizations such as the MIND Research Institute are at the forefront of those initiatives. The group’s widely used educational math software, called ST Math, provides students with learning exercises that aim to build not only math skills, but also curiosity, perseverance, and a mindset that mistakes are powerful learning opportunities.

Ideally, the software would be able to recognize each student’s strengths and weaknesses across each of those domains, then provide a steady stream of customized problems based in part on such factors as a student’s capacity to keep trying to solve new challenges, said Matthew Peterson, the group’s co-founder and CEO.

For now, though, the MIND Research Institute gauges mindset and character traits primarily at the aggregate level, based on laboratory research and analysis of user data about the “typical” 2nd grader.

Other vendors, meanwhile, are wrestling with the opposite challenge. Princeton, N.J.-based startup Mindprint Learning, for example, uses a battery of online cognitive assessments to provide highly customized profiles of how individual students learn, including everything from verbal reasoning to spatial perception. But the company, like others in the field, is still trying to find user-friendly ways for schools and parents to turn the resulting information into compelling learning experiences that are customized for each individual student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Privacy concerns and continuing debate about the appropriate use of such technologies for schools in addressing character, mindset, and affect will help shape what happens next.

But district leaders such as Brien Hodges, the executive director of K-12 schools for the 28,000-student Colorado Springs School District 11 are eager for new resources to help personalize student learning, based on more than just academic ability.

“A digital tool that understands what it is the teacher wants all students to know, and knows how each student thinks and learns, and gives the teacher ideas on how to present the material differently would be gigantic,” Hodges said.

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Tracking Students’ Emotions and Mindsets


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