Providing Personalized Emotional and Motivational Support in Online Remedial Math Courses

Article Review 1 – Lori Sowa

While researching articles related to active learning strategies for online courses, I came across an article on personalized learning environments for students taking online remedial math courses.   This article captured my interest because I am teaching a remedial math course for the first time this semester.   I know the content of the course well, but helping students to surmount significant challenges to learning the material, working through math anxiety, and being engaged when many don’t see a direct connection to their educational goal is a challenge.

In The Role of Affective and Motivational Factors in Designing Personalized Learning Environments, Kim (2012) outlines guidelines for developing Virtual Change Agents (VCAs) to accommodate students’ emotional and motivational needs specific to online remedial math courses.        VCAs are described as human-like animations that are designed to facilitate positive changes in learners’ attitudes and are personalized to meet the needs of each individual student.   The VCAs can provide personalized motivation by allowing the student to choose the subject matter of example problems (e.g. motorcycle repair, dieting calculations, etc.) — thus improving student perceptions of task value and controllability, which ultimately can lead to students’ positive reappraisal of their situation.   The author also suggests that student interactions with VCAs can be designed to promote emotional regulation skills, and provides a framework on how to accomplish this based upon prior research in affective and motivational factors.

This is the first I’ve heard of VCAs, and to be honest my first reaction is doubt about whether learners will relate to an animated human providing pre-programmed advice.   The effectiveness of this specific strategy remains to be seen — the author acknowledges the theories and guidance described in the paper have yet to be validated, and is actively seeking researchers to perform these studies.   But the author does point to a number of studies related to “Computers Are Social Actors’ (CASA) theory that support the idea that users relate to computers as they do to people. The study of computer-person interactions is fascinating to me, and is certainly an area that is quickly evolving and expanding.  It is unclear, however, if any of the studies referenced support a sustained relationship through purely computerized interaction that leads to a substantial change in emotional and motivational state for populations relevant to this study.   I can certainly envision the possibility, though, and in fact it is a bit mind-boggling to think about the potential applications.

The underlying strategy used in creating the personalized learning environment is to provide support to overcome both emotional and motivational barriers to learning math content. The author quotes a relevant analogy from Buck (1985) who states that ‘‘just as energy is a potential that manifests itself in matter, motivation is a potential that manifests itself in emotion. Thus motivation and emotion are seen to be two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same process’’.   The strategies outlined to work through these barriers would apply to any classroom, whether online or face-to-face.   However, the online classroom may allow for greater personalization when instructor time is limited. For example, I try to choose relevant example problems in my lecture based upon what I know about my students’ educational goals and interests.   But I will never be able to do this for each student.   Allowing students to have control over the context of the problems aligns with the constructivist theory of learning, while fostering motivation is an essential tenant of cognitive psychology.

The research addresses an important need — as the author reports, 1 in 3 students entering the University are placed into a remedial math course.        These students bring a wealth of issues that require personalized scaffolding to address and promote student success.   To intervene and provide that personalized support in an online environment, instructors and instructional designers have to find ways of predicting when and why students will disengage, and provide built-in solutions to try to prevent this. It will be interesting to see how effective VCAs can be in providing this support system.

Buck, R. (1985). An integrated view of motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(3), 389—413.

Kim, C. (2012). The Role of  Affective and Motivational Factors in Designing Personalized Learning Environments.  Educational Technology Research and Development 60(4), 563—584.

17 thoughts on “Providing Personalized Emotional and Motivational Support in Online Remedial Math Courses

  1. Jenny

    Lori,
    I was very interested in the article you chose. I have never heard of VCA’s and like you am a bit sceptical that students would be motivated by an animation. However, the idea of providing motivational and emotional support is very important. I facilitated the high school remediation program and adult education program in my district for many years and was able to see first hand the anxiety and stress that was common amongst students taking computer-based remediation courses. Math caused a lot of problems for the adult students, in particular, and these also tended to be the students who were less likely to ask questions of the instructor. I think that a VCA might be a good option for these students, because it is personalized and allows a more private “pep talk” for those students that want a more independent learning experience, but still struggle with motivation.

    Reply
  2. Bob

    “Computers Are Social Actors” (CASA) theory… wow. Even for this online gamer that is weird. That said, I’ve watched co-workers swear at their computers, when an automatic update pop-up… pops-up, and anthropomorphize about them, “My computer hates me.” But to actually imagine them as social actors is taking it to a different level. I am reminded first of the disturbing movie “Demonseed” from the 70s about a computer so intelligent it synthesized genetic material and impregnated a woman. Perhaps CASA is short of that nightmare, I hope. I have found myself intrigued by my wife and daughter’s reaction to the GPS perhaps the vocal instruction adds enough to humanize the device? I found myself just turning off bits of annoying functionality as with MS Office. And that in itself is fascinating is that my own defensiveness at a machine coming too close for comfort? I have wondered if personalizing desktops, or interfaces on mobile devices and so in some way they became extensions of my embodiment, but, to imagine them as autonomous social actors is to take a mental turn that I have not explored. I have hypothesized vaguely that computers and mobile devices provide an intellectual stimulant and a social connection that is hyper-real, rather like test monkeys with self administered cocaine, better then the damn cage, by far. But that does not get me all the way to social actors. Perhaps, I need to think more deeply about the inter-net of things, the data collected, stored and exchanged by things to actually get headed down this path. Weird, thanks for that jolt.

    Reply
  3. kgebauer

    Lori,
    I have to say your title intrigued me, but what really sucked me in was I read Jenny’s and Bob’s comments first and thought I have to read this. I have never heard of Virtual Change Agents (VCAs) or the Computers Are Social Actors” (CASA) theory. I talk to myself or things to help my memory out sometimes, but I typically do not refer to inanimate objects or smarter technologies as I do a person. It may be part of a joke every once in a while, but not something I do or know anyone else to do on a regular basis. I think it is on the same level as talking about yourself in the third person. I can see the potential benefits of VCAs, but I am a bit skeptical still. I am curious what the cost is for such a program is and wonder about the assessments used and there effectiveness. How much does the computer talk to the student? Does it do the same thing during a test and give encouragement? Do the students talk back to the computer like the CASA theory suggests? Your article review definitely makes me want to know more about this emerging use of technology in the online learning environment.

    Besides being thrown for a loop by all the new information encountered in your review I really enjoyed this quote:

    Buck (1985) who states that ‘‘just as energy is a potential that manifests itself in matter, motivation is a potential that manifests itself in emotion. Thus motivation and emotion are seen to be two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same process’’.

    When you see students’ emotion from learning that is one way you know they are engaged in the learning process. It could be a laugh or furrowed forehead in frustration, but it all shows that they are motivated to learn. Thanks for sharing and good luck in your remedial math class.

    Reply
  4. Owen

    Great article and great comments folks. Very interesting.

    It seems a matter of time on these issues. If you look at the fundamental need for human companionship, for connection, especially during development.

    What is behind all of this? Is it economics? Prior to the industrial revolution, adults worked from home or near home. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve gone from most households containing single wage earners away from the home, to the present where in most households, both parents are occupied outside the home. This has had a cascade of effects on society… Can it come full circle to where industrialized technology can finally replace parents and free them up completely to be more productive in the workforce? There is an argument, I suppose, that this is only a matter of time.

    I too meet this with skepticism. Bob’s allusion to Microsoft’s dancing paperclip is also exactly where my mind went. That being said, I don’t think we’re yet at generation 1.0 when it comes to CASA type technologies. Well…I say that but then I think of “you may also know” type messages in Facebook, or LinkedIn. This is software as social agent surely. When I start an email message in GMail to several people, GMail prompts me to remember those I might have forgotten.

    The folks working on Adaptive Learning are pursuing similar technologies as well. Very interesting.

    -owen

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