Cerebral coach guides learners

January 08, 2004, vol. 29, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University education professor Phil Winne sits at his computer answering questions displayed by software that he has installed.

Like a cerebral coach on the sidelines of his thought processes, gSTUDY, a program co-designed by Winne, is helping him grasp material that he is studying.

A Canada Research Chair, Winne is demonstrating the 10 years of work he and his research team have put into creating revolutionary software for learning.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's (SSHRC) initiative on the new economy program has awarded Winne $3 million over four years to further his team's work on the learning kit.

His team includes SFU professors John Nesbit and Vive Kumar at the Surrey campus and other university researchers in North America.

Luc Beaudoin of CogSky Systems, an independent contractor, leads Winne's software development team.

It is creating software and theory to help learners develop skills for learning as they study everyday.

gSTUDY can be applied to learning any subject in any medium.

Winne's research shows learners are falling behind in acquiring new knowledge and skills because they “mismanage their learning skills,” as he puts it. “They usually spend too much time memorizing and they overestimate how well they can apply what they know. As a result, they struggle to solve problems and transfer their knowledge.”

gSTUDY allows users to evaluate their studying and helps them improve their learning skills.

Winne's SSHRC funding will advance his team's design of other software and theory to help information providers make their subject matter “learning skill friendly.”

The software will reference findings about learning based on educational research.

“You can't expect an economist or a surgeon to know all about research on learning and apply it when they create learning materials,” explains Winne. “We hope that by synchronizing developers' design of learning materials with a user's learning needs, learners will reap a double benefit.”

Winne says there is an urgent need for cognitive tools to help people cope with the learning pressure that rapidly changing technology is putting on them.

“All the textbooks, web sites and software programs out there teach subject matter,” clarifies Winne. “Virtually nothing helps learners develop new learning skills or helps them improve the learning skills they have.”
Winne clicks on a gSTUDY icon that helps him organize his answers into study notes.

The answers contain terms that he can electronically cross reference to other information and store in an electronic glossary.

A software advisory pops up, alerting Winne that he should add an
explanatory note to one of his answers.

“Finally,” says Winne, “software that thinks like a learning coach.”

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