Intelligent Tutoring and Mentoring for Effective Learning

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Key Takeaways

  • In-person mentoring combined with intelligent electronic tutoring — with its anywhere, anytime access — blends the best of traditional face-to-face education and artificial intelligence technology.
  • Envision a future tutor-mentor resource center, where multiple educational resources are available and tutoring might be supplied by a combination of a computer program, a peer student, an adult mentor, or an instructor.
  • In addition to managing learning objectives, intelligent tutoring with course management technology supports student progress toward learning goals, assessment, and reporting on learning outcomes for accrediting bodies.

In 2010 and beyond we expect to see a leap from traditional higher education, in which each student chooses one university and one curriculum, to a blended approach within more than one institution. Blended learning combines the benefits of instructor-led training with the advantages brought by a variety of technologies to create a program that offers different forms of e-learning to suit different learning styles.1

We already know that better learning outcomes result from one-on-one tutoring that presents different content for different students depending on their individual needs and preferences.2 Yet, the cost and time intensiveness of one-on-one tutoring in any learning environment can be prohibitive within today’s budget realities. Electronic tutors — and specifically intelligent tutoring systems — can personalize learning, providing a more convenient, less expensive solution for a diverse generation of students with changing needs by keeping costs down and more effectively using instructors’ time.3

Researchers and educators have worked for years to create computer tutors that employ artificial intelligence to model a student’s knowledge. They’ve succeeded in offering a new avenue for tutoring in which computer programs seem almost as adaptive and responsive to a student’s needs as a human tutor, with fidelity ranging from two-dimensional computer screen presentations to multidimensional virtual reality. Some researchers, including Albert Corbett, senior research scientist in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and co-director of the Pittsburgh Advanced Cognitive Tutor Center at Carnegie Mellon, believe that electronic tutors have already surpassed the effectiveness of human tutors.4

Tutor-Mentor Resource Centers

One future model we envision with roots in ancient learning traditions is a tutor-mentor learning resource center — an on-campus community gathering place for meeting, learning, playing, and mentoring. There, tutoring might be supplied by a combination of a computer program, a peer student, an adult mentor, or an instructor. A typical day at a tutor-mentor learning resource center might look like this:

Pooja checks in with her ‘home base’ advisor for any information she needs to know for the day. She gets her suggested curriculum from the plan that she, her teacher, and her mentor created together at the beginning of the month. She then goes to one of the computers in the room and logs on to her course management system, which notifies her of her progress in each subject area. She sees a prompt in the Algebra I section of the timeline asking her to review some material again. She clicks onto the new Algebra material and is excited to see that she can learn the skills through a game. After more than an hour playing the Algebra game, she starts to learn from her mistakes. Upon ending the game, she sees a score pop up to show that she has improved her results. Pooja then meets with a classmate from a grade above for a 45-minute peer-tutoring session on chemistry. Lunch is time for a break to eat and walk outside. After lunch, she has a meeting with a group of students working on a project to build a computer model of a lunar base with a support infrastructure. She goes online to do some research for the project and posts some questions on the course management system discussion board. After she finishes, Pooja takes a test and saves her student history file to her backup folder. After her test, she e-mails one of her mentors for the lunar base project, reporting the decisions she and her team made earlier that day. She checks the discussion board and finds answers to some of her questions from just a few hours before. Near the end of her visit, Pooja takes a seat in the center’s large classroom to hear a speaker from a research institute talking about renewable energy and fuel-cell technologies.

As part of the tutor-mentoring experience, instructors and mentors will no longer impart knowledge; they will facilitate students’ acquisition of knowledge. Key to the learning experience will be electronic tutors, specifically intelligent tutoring systems,5 which will extend the reach of instructors, peers, mentors, and students engaged in self-study. We believe intelligent tutoring will be integral to the future of higher education, whether because of the convenience of its anywhere, anytime access, its cost effectiveness, or its ability to engage students.

Personalized Tutoring

Electronic tutors can deliver material through games, videos, movies, and exercises — a more exciting menu for any student, but especially those with learning differences. One of the most prominent groups of students who benefit are those diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Many people with ADD have difficulty accomplishing learning goals, despite high levels of intelligence. Yet, when a blended learning approach is applied in the right environment for just-in-time access, it can provide an ADD student with repetition that aids comprehension.

Electronic tutors personalize learning much like a human tutor. When the course content presented is based on evaluation of the student’s performance and knowledge, the resulting dynamic presentation differs for each student. Though recent research disputes the theory that students learn better when teaching methods are linked to their learning preferences (whether visual, verbal, or kinetic),not everyone agrees with the new research.6

Also, computer tutors can rouse less anxiety in students than human tutors: Learners can practice as much as they want and make mistakes without anyone else knowing.

Another group of students who might benefit from intelligent tutoring by computer are those with life circumstances that make in-person attendance difficult — those who are home-bound or do not have easy access to schools, such as students with severe disabilities or students living in rural areas. If distance learning technology is available, learners can access the knowledge from wherever they are, in between regularly scheduled teleconferences with the instructor.

Meeting Student and Instructor Goals

Electronic tutors can also benefit instructors increasingly asked to report learning outcomes to accrediting bodies, by providing enhanced capabilities to manage learning objectives. For example, when integrated with a course management system such as WebStudy or Angel Learning, intelligent tutoring technology allows an instructor to view the progress of students’ learning objectives for the entire course through a dashboard reporting feature. This type of electronic tutoring system can help instructors determine what material is presented to each student and create rules to release additional materials to students based on their assessment results. Ideally, a student and an instructor can see immediately what progress the student is making toward a learning objective by viewing a status bar showing the percent completed. It is exciting to think that presentation of course content can adapt in response to student performance and be driven by the combined goals of student and instructor.

The Future: Immediate and Engaging

With the information overload we all face, students can benefit from a learning environment that is immediate, engaging — and fun. For students with different learning styles and life circumstances, instructors must be able to provide what each student needs at each moment so that all students can learn and understand the concepts and skills being taught. The tutor-mentor learning resource center brings blended learning full circle by combining the most ancient learning traditions with the most futuristic intelligent tutors. Imagine the possibilities for learning as the field of intelligent tutoring evolves to work with course management systems in providing students and educators with integrated, affordable, just-in-time learning software solutions. Then add the promise for learning as tutor-mentor learning resource centers emerge in every corner of the world. Pervasive and effective education can have a huge impact on society and human welfare. Perhaps new methods of teaching and learning will bring the goal of eradicating poverty within closer reach — if we can provide the infrastructure.

  1. Susie Alvarez, "Blended Learning Solutions," in Encyclopedia of Educational Technology, Bob Hoffman, ed. (San Diego: San Diego State University, 2005).
  2. Benjamin S. Bloom, "The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring" Educational Researcher, (June/July 1984), pp. 4-16.
  3. An intelligent tutoring system (ITS) is a computer-based tutor with a more complex way to decide what to show a student based on the student’s interaction with the tutor.
  4. Albert T. Corbett, "Cognitive Computer Tutors: Solving the Two-Sigma Problem," Lecture Notes in Computer Science: Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on User Modeling 2001, Vol. 2109 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2001), pp. 137–147. <>
  5. Some very effective ITSs have been produced by Carnegie Learning, which provides a cognitive tutor evaluation references list.
  6. David Glenn. "Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students," Chronicle of Higher Education(Dec. 15, 2009).