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Jan 15 2015 - 07:00 PM
Problem Solving in Online Learning

Google has become a verb in our daily lives. Eager to know something? Google it. Stuck with a challenging problem you must solve? Search it. We are used to immediate answers, and it seems counterintuitive to think that asking for help or hints online might not enhance learning. However, a recent study about help-seeking behaviors in an online tutoring environment has uncovered unexpected negative impacts of help-seeking approaches in online learning.

Researchers in this study focused on the online tutoring system Geometry Cognitive Tutor because it provides fine-grained data about skill levels and attempts of individual learners in problem solving. They were especially interested in discovering the relationships between various help-seeking patterns, different skill-level tasks, and learning. They identified three help-seeking patterns: desired help that gave learners what they needed, help abuse in which learners clicked through to get answers without much thinking, and avoidance attempts in which students did not use help from the system. Not surprisingly, getting desired help from the tutoring system was associated with increased learning across all skill level tasks and students. In addition, help abuse was associated with poorer learning across all skill level learning tasks.

While most theories suggest that students with lower prior knowledge need more assistance, this study found some results that contradict this idea. For students who struggled with lower-skill tasks, attempting to solve problems without asking for system help was associated with better learning results. The authors suspected that either the hints were too hard for students to understand or that there was inherent value in attempting the problem and learning from failure.

There are other factors that might contribute to the helpfulness of hints (e.g., learner's motivation, type of help given, and type of learning tasks) and this study only focused on one dimension -- students' prior knowledge levels. But this study suggested that attempting to answer questions without help might make for more fruitful learning. Attempting challenging problems before we search online for solutions might help us try (and fail) in order to learn better.

Roll, I., Baker, R. S., Aleven, V., & Koedinger, K. R. (2014). On the Benefits of Seeking (and Avoiding) Help in Online Problem-Solving Environments. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

Image: by Kellywritershouse via Flickr
|By: Ching-Fu Lan|638 Reads