Optimizing Instructional Policies

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 26 (NIPS 2013)

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Robert V. Lindsey, Michael C. Mozer, William J. Huggins, Harold Pashler


Psychologists are interested in developing instructional policies that boost student learning. An instructional policy specifies the manner and content of instruction. For example, in the domain of concept learning, a policy might specify the nature of exemplars chosen over a training sequence. Traditional psychological studies compare several hand-selected policies, e.g., contrasting a policy that selects only difficult-to-classify exemplars with a policy that gradually progresses over the training sequence from easy exemplars to more difficult (known as {\em fading}). We propose an alternative to the traditional methodology in which we define a parameterized space of policies and search this space to identify the optimum policy. For example, in concept learning, policies might be described by a fading function that specifies exemplar difficulty over time. We propose an experimental technique for searching policy spaces using Gaussian process surrogate-based optimization and a generative model of student performance. Instead of evaluating a few experimental conditions each with many human subjects, as the traditional methodology does, our technique evaluates many experimental conditions each with a few subjects. Even though individual subjects provide only a noisy estimate of the population mean, the optimization method allows us to determine the shape of the policy space and identify the global optimum, and is as efficient in its subject budget as a traditional A-B comparison. We evaluate the method via two behavioral studies, and suggest that the method has broad applicability to optimization problems involving humans in domains beyond the educational arena.