Assistance Dilemma English Articles

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PI Ruth Wylie, Teruko Mitamura, Ken Koedinger
Others with > 160 hours Jim Rankin
Start date study 1 September 2008
End date study 1 December 2008
Start date study 2 January 2009
End date study 2 May 2009
Learnlab English

Intelligent Writing Tutor

Ruth Wylie, Teruko Mitamura, Ken Koedinger, and Jim Rankin


This project focuses on integrated theory development with respect to the Assistance Dilemma (Koedinger and Aleven, 2007), specifically the instructional principle of self-explanation. We explore whether having students self-explain and thereby adding difficulty aids or harms eventual learning outcomes.

This work sets out to test, for the first time, whether the success of self-explanation extend to second language grammar learning, particularly the English article system (teaching students the difference between when to say “a dog” vs “the dog”). Previous work has demonstrated the effectiveness of self-explanation to enhance robust learning across multiple math and science domains and a variety of learners. Our goal is to better understand how, why, and when self-explanation works by investigating the effects of self-explanation on second language acquisition.

Self-Explanation Study 1


Since the added process of self-explanation is generative, students in the self-explanation with menu condition will show greater learning gains on both normal and robust learning measures than those in the practice-only condition and free-form self-explanation condition. We hypothesize that the added difficulty of generating explanations in the free-form condition is extraneous and thus will result in less learning than the menu-based self-explanation conditions.

Alternatively, generating self-explanations may require too much time and thus it may be better to provide students with extra examples and to implicitly learn the rules through the practice-only condition.

In addition, while self-explanation has proved to lead to greater learning in other domains, this would be the one of the first, if not the first, study to empirically examine its effects in second language grammar acquisition.

Independent Variables

Picture 1.jpg
Image 1: Practice-Only Tutor - Using this tutor, students select an article (a, an, the, no article) from each sentence to complete the sentence.

Picture 7.jpg
Image 2: Menu-based Self-Explanation Tutor - Using this tutor, students select an article (a, an, the, no article) from each sentence and choose the feature of the sentence that best explains the article choice.

Picture 2.jpg
Image 3: Free-form Self-Explanation Tutor- Using this tutor, students select an article (a, an, the, no article) from each sentence and write an explanation for why they made their choice.

Dependent Variables

All students completed a computer-based pre and posttest that consisted of article-only and article with explanation items. In the article-only items, students chose an article from a dropdown menu to complete the sentence. In the article with explanation items, students chose an article to complete the sentence and then chose the feature or rule that explained their answer. No hints were available during the tests, and students did not receive feedback on their answers.


Students (n=63) in all conditions showed significant pre to posttest improvement. While there were no significant main effects of condition, there was a significant aptitude-treatment interaction (F(2, 60) = 3.54, p = 0.036) of theoretical interest. The dependent variable in this analysis was a learning efficiency score, which is a measure that combines learning gains and time-on-task into a single construct, and the article pre-test was the aptitude measure. As shown in the figure below, lower aptitude students benefited more (i.e., learned more in less time) from the self-explanation manipulations whereas higher aptitude students benefited more from the practice-only condition. This interaction is consistent with the theoretical notion that self-explanation is beneficial primarily during early construction and refinement of knowledge components whereas practice alone is better during knowledge strengthening and fluency development. It is also consistent with research on the worked example principle and particularly the "expertise reversal effect" (Kalyuga, Chandler, Tuovinen, & Sweller, 2001).


Self Explanation Study 2

The second study, conducted in Spring 2009 in Levels 3, 4, and 5 of the English LearnLab compared a practice-only tutoring system to a worked examples with self-explanation system. The goal of this study was to further investigate the effects of self-explanation on second language grammar learning. In the self-explanation conditions in the previous study, students were required to select an article and select an explanation. In this study, we isolated the two tasks such that students were either selecting articles (practice-only) or selecting an exlanation (worked examples with self-explanation).

Independent Variables

Practice only.jpg
Practice-Only Tutor: Working with the practice-only tutor, students select an article (a, an, the, or no article) from a drop-down. Students receive immediate feedback on their selections and can request hints to help choose the right answer.

Worked ex with SE.jpg
Worked Example with Self-Explanation Tutor:In the worked example plus self-explanation tutor, students are given a completed sentence with the target article highlighted and are asked to select the feature of the sentence that best explains the article choice.

Dependent Variables

Similar to Study 1, students were given a pretest and immediate posttest with items similar to those on which they were tutored. The pre and posttests contained both article selection and explanation selection items.


Results showed that students (n=101) in both conditions showed significant learning gains (F(1, 99) = 40.28, p < 0.001) but there was no difference between conditions.

Learning gain.jpg


These studies are the first to experimentally test the effects of self-explanation in second language grammar learning, and the current results suggest that there are limitations to the benefits of self-explanation. This work highlights the need to continue investigating the self-explanation effect in new and different domains. It suggests there may be limitations to its applicability. Additionally, it is important to understand the source of difficulty within a domain and identify how self-explanations may or may not address it. More research is needed to further specify those boundary conditions and relate them to basic understanding of cognitive processes.


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