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New Methods for Confusion Detection in Course Forums: Student, Teacher, and Machine


This article provides computational and rule-based approaches for detecting confusion that is expressed in students' comments in couse forums. To obtain reliable, ground truth data about which posts exhibit student confusion, we designed a decision tree that facilitates the manual labeling of forum posts by experts. However, manual labeling is costly in time and resources, which limits the amount of data that can be generated using this process. Our strategy for overcoming these limitations was to generate rules for detecting confusion based on student input via hashtags, which reflect the student's affective states. We show that the resulting rules closely align with the ground truth judgement of experts. We next applied these rules to datasets of students' forum posts in a large-scale biology course, thereby automatically generating thousands of labeled instances of 'confused posts.' Finally, the resulting dataset was used to train a machine learning model for detecting whether students' posts exhibit confusion in the absence of hashtags. In this task, the pretrained language model based on bidirectional encoder representation from transformers (BERT) was able to outperform traditional machine learning models for classifying confusion in posts. This model was also able to generalize and detect student confusion across different offerings of the same course. Ultimately, the use of pretrained language models of this type will provide teachers with better technologies for detecting and alleviating confusion in online discussion forums by leveraging the combined input of teachers and students.

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