This research project is developing FACT, an automated teaching assistant.  Teachers often want to use active learning methods that combine small group work, individual work and whole-class instruction.  Managing the flow of ideas and students through these activities is challenging.  FACT is designed for this style of teaching.  It does not do much teaching itself.  Instead, it facilitates and executes non-teaching tasks.  This frees teachers to do more one-on-one teaching/tutoring themselves.  Thus, FACT is not a tutoring system.  It is an automated teaching assistant.

Students run the FACT system on any tablet or laptop that supports Chrome.  In order to circulate among the students while they work, teachers carry a tablet running FACT.  Because FACT can monitor speech, both students and teachers can either wear microphones or enable the microphones on their devices.

FACT is intelligent in limited ways. First, it understands the students’ work well enough to spot errors and identify misconceptions.  Second, it understands group dynamics well enough to detect poor collaboration and lack of progress.  FACT can give feedback to students when it detects errors or poor group dynamics.  Early versions of FACT did just that.

FACT is being developed by trial and error.  A trial consists of teachers enacting a FACT lesson in their classroom while we video record the actions of students and teachers.  Afterwards, both students and teachers point out issues and suggest improvements.  Typically, we conduct multiple trials in the same day at the same school with different teachers and different classes.  Back in the lab, we analyze the videos and the participants’ comments to find opportunities for improving FACT.  We then make those changes and repeat the process.  This process called iterative development or design-based research.

More than 50 trials have been conducted so far.  Over this time, we learned that teachers prefer to do the substantive teaching themselves.  They prefer that FACT act as a teaching assistant.  Although FACT can give students feedback, teachers prefer that it focus on non-teaching duties.  Here are some of the things that the 2021 version of FACT does:

  • If students have been asked to explain their actions, but they have not done so, then FACT can remind them to record explanations.
  • When students finish before the rest of the class, and their work has no errors, then FACT can assign them additional work.
  • If students claim to be done, but their work has errors, then FACT can suggest that they check their work.
  • To help teachers decide who to visit next, FACT displays the status of all the students and highlights students who especially need help.  The status includes whether the students’ hand is raised, how much progress they’ve made, how many errors are currently present in their work, and whether they have been collaborating appropriately.
  • To help the teacher decide whether to move on to the next activity, FACT displays the percentage of the class that has finished the activity.  It also displays how close the rest of the class is to being finished.
  • When a teacher has decided to visit a group, the teacher can preview their work.  FACT highlights errors.  If asked, it can explain an error and suggest what to say to students.
  • To help the teacher decide whether to insert a brief whole-class minilesson in the middle of a problem solving activity, FACT displays a list of misconceptions that are currently present in students’ work along with the percentage of the students that are displaying that misconception.
  • To help the teacher conduct such a brief minilesson, FACT can freeze the students’ workspace and make it display “eyes on teacher”.  If an example is desired, the teacher can instantly display a student’s work to the class.
  • If students have still not started an activity, perhaps because they don’t understand the instructions, then FACT can help them get started.  It can even suggest a specific action to do.
  • if a group is not collaborating in the way that the teacher has specified, then FACT can remind them to do so.  For instance, if one student in the group is doing all the actions and all the talking, then FACT can remind the group that this is not what the teacher wants them to do.
  • Suppose the teacher is visiting one group but too many other groups are stuck and waiting for the teacher to visit.  Only then will FACT give hints to the stuck groups in order to help them restart their work.

The FACT project is a collaboration between Arizona State University, the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative, and the Mathematics Assessment Project.  The latter two organizations developed the Classroom Challenges, which are 100 paper-based mathematics lessons for middle school and high school.  They are widely used (millions of downloads) and measurably effective (MDC,CRSST).  They address the 8 practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM).  The current version of FACT implements a sample of 8 of the 100 lessons.

A Classroom Challenge lesson takes about 60 to 90 minutes over one or two days.  A lesson consists of a coordinated sequence of small group, whole class and individual activities.  Most of the activities involve working on complex, open-ended problems.  The instructional objective is not to master a particular math topic or skill but instead to engage in collaborative, productive struggle with mathematical ideas as students engage in the 8 practices of the CCSSM.  The Classroom Challenges enact a style of teaching called Formative Assessment.  FACT is an acronym for Formative Assessment with Computational Technology.

The project began in 2012 with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under OPP1061281.  It is currently supported by NSF grant 1840051.   The PI is supported by the Diane and Gary Tooker Chair for Effective Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of all the members of the FACT project, past and present.


Kurt VanLehn
Professor, School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
Arizona State University
t: 480-727-6348