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Using a Pedagogical Agent to Support Students Learning to Program

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Computers in Education Division Technical Session 9: Pedagogical Tools

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Computers in Education

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Paper Authors


Dylan Keifer Finch Virginia Tech

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I am a Master's student researching computer science education and human-computer interaction at Virginia Tech.

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Stephen H. Edwards Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Stephen H. Edwards is a Professor and the Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, where he has been teaching since 1996. He received his B.S. in electrical engineering from Caltech, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer and information science from The Ohio State University. His research
interests include computer science education, software testing, software engineering, and programming languages. He is the project lead for Web-CAT, the most widely used open-source automated grading system in the world. Web-CAT is known for allowing instructors to grade students based on how well they test their own code. In addition, his research group has produced a number of other open-source tools used in classrooms at many other institutions. Currently, he is researching innovative for giving feedback to students as they work on assignments to provide a more welcoming experience for students, recognizing the effort they put in and the accomplishments they make as they work on solutions, rather than simply looking at whether the student has finished what is required. The goals of his research are to strengthen growth mindset beliefs while encouraging deliberate practice, self-checking, and skill improvement as students work.

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Many colleges face a lack of support for their computer science students. There is not enough faculty to give each student adequate instructional and emotional support. This experience report describes the design, implementation, and evaluation of a solution to this problem: a pedagogical agent named Maria. A pedagogical agent is a human-like interface designed to simulate the relationship between teacher and student. In this way, Maria functions like a virtual teaching assistant, filling the gap left by inadequate human facility. Students can ask Maria natural language questions about computer science and get natural language answers. Maria was designed to: (1) make students want to ask her questions, (2) answer student questions, and (3) provide emotional support to students. Maria's implementation focuses on achieving these goals. To make students want to ask questions, Maria is relatable and easy to access. To make sure Maria was able to answer questions, she was programmed with the answers many common computer science and general knowledge questions. She can also walk students through more complicated issues (like finding the cause of a NullPointerException). Finally, to provide emotional support to students, Maria will give students tips on how to improve their score on programming assignments and will congratulate students when they correctly fix problems with their code. Maria will be evaluated by examining usage and survey data to find out the proportion of students who asked questions, the proportion of students who used Maria multiple times, and whether or not students found Maria helpful.

Finch, D. K., & Edwards, S. H. (2020, June), Using a Pedagogical Agent to Support Students Learning to Program Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35447

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