Improving education using computers is the mantra of education in the 21st century. The learning potential of interactive environments, and the associated scalability and economy of internet delivery, beg for creative and thoughtful development. The RELATE program has as its broad objective the improvement of learning and pedagogy in interactive environments. Key to this is our development of integrated assessment tools with unprecedented reliability. We believe that accurate assessment of all educational innovations – not just electronic ones – is crucial to improving the mixed educational results of educational reform in the 20th century. Under support from NSF and from MIT, we have made considerable progress toward these objectives since 2000.

Electronic Tutorial Homework

Our studies imply that, of the various instructional elements in the course, electronic tutorial – type homework generates by far the most student learning as displayed by score improvement on the MIT final and is comparable to group problems on standard tests of conceptual understanding. We have developed extraordinarily accurate assessment based on the process of a student working through a tutorial. Although integrated seamlessly within the instructional activities, it has the power to assess student’s skills on a fine grid of topics, allowing targeted tutoring to improve students’ scores as well as prediction of students’ performances on high stakes tests. Finally, we have developed techniques to measure the learning from individual tutorials. For example, our recently developed ability to accurately measure the amount learned per unit of student time on a single tutorial allows comparison and improvement at the micro level. This will allow us to improve tutoring both by improving the individual tutorials and by determining what pedagogy (e.g. tutorial-first vs. problem-first instruction) works best. We have also found evidence for the effectiveness of hints in arriving at the correct solutions. Further studies on this will help improve our hint structure and would increase their effectiveness in tutoring.

Electronic Delivery of Course Content

Key to the notion of an integrated electronic learning environment is the capability to deliver course content online. We are exploring the potential of the wiki environment as a framework for course content. Our experimental Supplemental Wiki Resource illustrates some of the features that a truly electronic “textbook” should employ. Our next step is to integrate a realtime assessment engine with the wiki, allowing students to become truly independent learners of introductory mechanics.

Language that Encourages Expertise

No matter how sophisticated or robust the delivery, it is the content that fundamentally inspires students to learn. Since early 2009, the RELATE group has gathered substantial evidence that physics instruction requires a shift in the dialogue to shed more light on the often-neglected conceptual framework underlying the material. We have developed a pedagogy based upon the Modeling Physics approach pioneered at ASU that has proven extremely successful as a tool for rapidly increasing the problem solving competence and confidence of D-level students. We are working to adapt this pedagogy for use in a typical first course in mechanics.


The RELATE project is supported by the NSF, NIH, and Google. It has also been supported by MIT as follows:

  • the James Ferry Fund
  • the Class of `55 funds
  • the MIT physics department
  • the MIT UROP program, and
  • the Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum.

We are grateful to Alex Pritchard and Adam Morton for adopting many of our suggestions for their myCyberTutor product.

Drafting compass in RELATE logo based on original artwork by abluescarab (A. Gilston), available under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

Needless to say, we are seeking additional support to enable this ambitious program to continue. If interested in supporting us, please write to Prof. David Pritchard.