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When “Hints” Hinder Learning, Part 3 of 3

Hurtful HintsIn part 1 and part 2 of this series, I explained the problems with giving students ‘hints’ that either (1) merely show the “next step” or (2) give a long general explanation about a certain type of problem or procedure. These hint designs are problematic for learning whether you’re working with students in a classroom, or designing learning software. Because DreamBox differentiates and adapts for students as they manipulate math objects and make sense of ideas, our DreamBox teachers spend a great deal of time ensuring students get useful hints right when they need them. In this final post of the series, I’ll explain how these DreamBox hints support student learning in much better ways.

The DreamBox Hint Difference

Hints in DreamBox are thoughtfully written and useful to students because all of our lessons are built from the ground up by experienced classroom teachers working with our talented programmers and creative team. The way lessons are written onto our Intelligent Adaptive Learning platform empowers our teachers to specifically write hints based on what students are doing (and likely thinking) at the very moment they click on our ‘Hint’ button. The hints also change as students progress through related lessons to ensure reduced scaffolding and increased independent transfer.

I’ll use our DreamBox Division within 10,000 with Remainders lessons as a specific example of some of the general design principles of our hints. In these lessons, students are shown a plastic rectangular box full of gumballs and a bag labeled with the number of gumballs to pack in each bag using the Bag-O-Matic. A sample problem might be 5916 gumballs divided into bags of four gumballs each.

If a student immediately clicks “Hint” before doing anything else, she will only hear simple directions about what the buttons do and what the question is asking. If she clicks “Hint” again before actually taking a step to solve the problem, she is told there aren’t any additional hints. This reflects what a teacher working one-on-one with her might say: “If I give you another hint, then I’ll be the one solving the problem.” Teachers know that you aren’t learning or thinking if you have access to unlimited, unrestricted hints and clues.

Once she decides to start packing some bags of four, her hint would be “Try packing a multiple of four.” This hint develops her vocabulary and gives her a clue that the number four is strategically valuable in this context. It’s not information overload, and it helps focus her attention on what’s important to think about. DreamBox lessons – especially when introducing new ideas – are designed to be very open-ended to allow students to explore and think critically. So she could start solving the problem by packing 4, 8, 16, 40, 400, or really any number of gumballs. Because there isn’t a single correct “next step,” DreamBox hints aren’t written to tell students what to do next.

As before, if she clicks “Hint” again, she’ll be told, “You have no new hints.” In later lessons, after she has demonstrated a certain amount of understanding, there might not be any hints available. That’s a deliberate decision our teachers at DreamBox make, just like they used to make in their classrooms. At a certain point the scaffolding must be removed so that students can perform independently – both in class and when using software. Therefore we make fewer hints available in DreamBox as students progress through lessons.

Because DreamBox is adaptive, students who require too many hints are given new lessons that will help them eventually make forward progress without scaffolding. And when students answer incorrectly, our teachers at DreamBox craft feedback and responses to specific student strategies and mistakes. This feedback is shared in the moment while students are thinking and solving problems, so our teachers spend substantial time crafting it just as they do with the hints.

Ultimately, students have to step out and try to solve a problem on their own in order to learn and grow. Whether in the classroom or when using DreamBox, they can’t simply be enabled to make forward progress if they always need hints. That’s not evidence of independent transfer and performance. Students can’t develop understanding if the hints are merely about next procedural steps or information overload. Whether in the classroom or on a computer, each student needs to be empowered with the right scaffolding at the right time. At DreamBox, we’re proud to partner with schools and teachers to ensure all students achieve and have a personalized experience.

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Tim Hudson