Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

U-M professor wins challenge grant for computerized coaching in science classes

Timothy McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, has been awarded a grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenge, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and William and Flora Hewlett Foundations.

  Timothy McKay

The grants were awarded to 29 institutions for projects that improve learning and graduation rates through the use of technology.

McKay will use new software to provide individualized expert coaching for thousands of students in large introductory physics courses. Known as ECoach, the system will provide thousands of undergraduate physics students with the advice, training and encouragement that they need to achieve at the highest levels.

The one-year pilot program will be launched during the winter 2012 semester. The grant was for $249,000.

"Too few students come to see me when I have office hours," McKay says. "This is what I would tell them if they were sitting in front of me, and I would like to reach them all."

The ECoach program combines next generation learning analytics with the best of behavioral change theory, according to McKay. He and his group of researchers have studied how more than 48,000 U-M students have progressed through their introductory physics courses, identifying patterns of behavior which lead them to perform better and sometimes worse than expected.

"The ability of computers to gather and process incomprehensible quantities of data is finally being brought to bear on our greatest challenge — how to give each student the educational experience which is most effective for them," he says. "Our project is a step toward an adaptive future in which computers not only give us access to a world of information, but understand who we are and what would most help us to achieve our goals."

ECoach is made possible because of prior work on the Michigan Tailoring System, developed by Victor Strecher, director of U-M's Center for Health Communications Research, and Edward Saunders, deputy director of the center.

Strecher, professor of health behavior and health education in the School of Public Health and professor of health behavior in the Medical School, received U-M's 2010 Distinguished University Innovator Award for the program that provides customized messages in public health interventions such as weight loss and smoking cessation programs.

Strecher and Saunders are working with McKay on the ECoach program.

"Tailored communications have been shown to be highly effective in public health interventions, where they are now helping millions of people," McKay says. "We see a remarkable parallel between quitting smoking and succeeding in an introductory science course. Both outcomes are highly desired, difficult to achieve and somewhat frightening to attempt."

He says the collaborative approach to learning at U-M is making the ECoach program possible.

"The combination of a world-class public health tailoring group, a physics department already heavily engaged in learning analytics, a large pool of highly motivated and capable students, and the supporting resources of a great public research university are all needed to make it possible. I don't think it could happen anywhere else," McKay says.