Classroom Technology What the Research Says

An AI Teaching Assistant Boosted College Students’ Success. Could It Work for High School?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 03, 2023 4 min read
Image of a student in a lecture hall using phone for utilitarian purposes.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Connection and support from instructors is particularly important to encourage students from underrepresented groups to succeed in college. That’s a challenge for teachers of large lecture classes—the ones that many freshmen encounter.

Artificially intelligent chatbots could help them amplify that kind of instructional outreach, according to results from a pilot program at Georgia State University. In a study discussed at last weekend’s meeting of the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness here, researchers found students who used an AI-powered teaching assistant called TA Pounce earned better grades and were more likely to complete the university’s two largest introductory lecture courses, in political science and economics.

Researchers tracked the class engagement and performance of more than 1,500 freshman students in Introduction to American Government classes and 915 students in Principles of Microeconomics, courses which historically have had high numbers of students receiving low or failing grades. The students were either randomly assigned to normal class supports or given access to the TA Pounce (named for the school’s panther mascot) and a self-quizzing tool.

See also

Teacher bot concept emerging from a laptop with a word bubble that reads "Hi"
iStock/Getty Images Plus

A majority of assigned students in both subjects used the chatbot, while less than 30 percent used the quiz app.

In college—as in high school—"success is part academic engagement and part administrative navigation,” said Katharine Meyer, a co-author of the study and a government studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, who discussed the pilot at the conference. “It’s not simply learning the content and demonstrating mastery of the content, but also navigating the systems both in the university as a whole and in the micro-setting in the classroom.”

Across both subjects, students who used the chatbot were 5-6 percentage points more likely to earn a B or higher in their classes—a requirement to keep certain scholarships.

While the Georgia chatbot was made specifically for college students, it is one of a new wave of school-specific AI tools, which use large natural-language models like those of ChatGPT or GoogleBard to answer questions. Unlike the more general AI tools, however, these school-related AI tools base their answers on a closed pool of prescreened and frequently updated data, rather than scraping the full internet, to avoid the common problem of bots parroting incorrect but oft-repeated information.

Wider support net for vulnerable students

The Pounce chatbot seemed particularly beneficial for underrepresented students and those who historically were at higher risk of dropping the class.

For example, it appeared to aid women in the math-heavy microeconomics course, which is needed for several economics and business majors at the university. While men performed about as well in economics with or without the chatbot, 72 percent of the female students who used TA Pounce earned an A or B in the course compared to 60 percent of women in the control group who did not use the chatbot. While 9 percent of female students in the control group ultimately dropped the economics class, only 3 percent of those in the chatbot group did so.

Similarly, 55 percent of students who had a below-average GPA in high school were more likely to earn at least a B in political science if they used the chatbot, versus 48 percent of similarly low-performing peers who did not use the tool. While Black students were less likely than their white peers to use the chatbot, those who did also earned higher grades.

Researchers don’t know why students who used the chatbot performed better, but Meyer suggested it may have helped students feel more confident in managing their workload and navigating course resources. TA Pounce, like a human teacher’s assistant, sent students text messages a few times a week, reminding them of upcoming assignments, letting them know how they were doing in class, and encouraging them to use a variety of academic resources at the school. It also offered students suggestions on managing their time and answered questions about the course and the school.

In addition, human teacher assistants reviewed the bot transcripts weekly and followed up on some chats. For example, when one student told the chatbot that he would have to drop the class mid-semester because his tuition source fell through, the chatbot directed the student to financial aid options, but a live teacher’s assistant popped in to add that the student could continue to complete classwork while working out his financial aid to avoid losing credit.

“It’s really a combination. The bot does a lot of the administrative things and takes care of a lot of the low-hanging fruit,” such as building organizational and time-management skills, Meyer said, “but you still need people behind it to help out with tricky situations.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology From Our Research Center The AI Classroom Hype Is All Wrong, Some Educators Say
Amid all the encouragement to try the technology, there are plenty of educators who don’t plan to start.
1 min read
Illustration of a large, sinking iceberg forming the letters "AI" as a business professional stands on the tip of the iceberg that remains above water with his hands on his hips and looking out into the large sea.
iStock/Getty
Classroom Technology What Worries District Tech Leaders Most About AI? (It’s Not About Teaching)
A new report from the Consortium for School Networking explores district tech leaders' top priorities and challenges.
3 min read
Motherboard image with large "AI" letters with an animated magnifying glass pans in from the left.
Canva
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center How Educators Are Using AI to Do Their Jobs
Educators are slowly experimenting with AI tools in a variety of ways, according to EdWeek Research Center survey data.
2 min read
Tight crop of a white computer keyboard with a cyan blue button labeled "AI"
iStock/Getty
Classroom Technology Opinion Let's Not Oversimplify Students' Cellphone Use
Vilifying the technology, including social media, is easier than digging into the societal issues that contribute to mental health issues.
5 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty