Automatic Discovery of Cognitive Skills to Improve the Prediction of Student Learning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 27 (NIPS 2014)

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Robert V. Lindsey, Mohammad Khajah, Michael C. Mozer


To master a discipline such as algebra or physics, students must acquire a set of cognitive skills. Traditionally, educators and domain experts manually determine what these skills are and then select practice exercises to hone a particular skill. We propose a technique that uses student performance data to automatically discover the skills needed in a discipline. The technique assigns a latent skill to each exercise such that a student's expected accuracy on a sequence of same-skill exercises improves monotonically with practice. Rather than discarding the skills identified by experts, our technique incorporates a nonparametric prior over the exercise-skill assignments that is based on the expert-provided skills and a weighted Chinese restaurant process. We test our technique on datasets from five different intelligent tutoring systems designed for students ranging in age from middle school through college. We obtain two surprising results. First, in three of the five datasets, the skills inferred by our technique support significantly improved predictions of student performance over the expert-provided skills. Second, the expert-provided skills have little value: our technique predicts student performance nearly as well when it ignores the domain expertise as when it attempts to leverage it. We discuss explanations for these surprising results and also the relationship of our skill-discovery technique to alternative approaches.