Learning to Teach Through Avatars

Writing for The Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay explores a Virginia study that shows that prospective teachers improve their handling of student misbehavior when training simulations with avatars are combined with coaching. Excerpts of the piece appear below:

University of Virginia researchers are rigorously testing computerized simulations of misbehaving students to see if they help student teachers practice controlling classroom behavior — a common bugaboo for novice teachers. In the spring of 2018, more than 100 prospective teachers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development took part in an experiment in teaching an unruly classroom. Video game-like student characters loudly hummed or sang and talked with each other about their personal hobbies and other irrelevant topics. Sometimes the simulated students texted or took calls on their cell phones. (A professional actor remotely controls the naughty avatars behind the scenes.) The teaching students decide how to respond within the virtual environment. The Mursion simulation technology that the University of Virginia and many institutions are using was originally developed at the University of Central Florida and is also called TeachLivE.

Researchers randomly assigned the 105 teaching students who participated in the experiment into one of three approaches using the simulator: a short coaching session after each practice simulation to review and give feedback; a live “bug in the ear” with a coach whispering what to do during the practice simulation; and a self-reflection exercise to guide the teachers to think about classroom management techniques on their own.

Both coaching approaches — brief feedback sessions and bug in the ear — produced similarly strong gains in teachers’ classroom management skills as measured by improvements in how teaching students responded in subsequent simulation sessions. But self-reflection was a dud. Not only did the teaching students not improve their behavioral management skills but their negative attitudes about the unruly students became more entrenched. 

“That’s a real, potential ‘A-ha’ moment in teacher ed,” said Julie Cohen, one of the study’s four authors and an assistant professor at the Curry school. “We push self-reflection as a key lever in improvement. We think that thinking and reflecting on things will help us get better. But when people are just starting out, they can’t self-reflect as productively as we want them to. When we see it without outside coaching support, people dig into negative beliefs about kids. Early teachers might need a lot more coaching than we’ve been giving them.” 

For more, see: https://hechingerreport.org/learning-to-teach-from-naughty-avatars/