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Inferring student comprehension from highlighting patterns in digital textbooks: An exploration of an authentic learning platform

David Y. J. Kim
Adam Winchell
Andrew E. Waters
Phillip J. Grimaldi
Richard G. Baraniuk
Michael C. Mozer
Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Intelligent Textbooks (2020)


We investigate whether student comprehension and knowledge retention can be predicted from textbook annotations, specifically the material that students choose to highlight. Using a digital open-access textbook platform, Openstax, students enrolled in Biology, Physics, and Sociology courses read sections of their introductory text as part of required coursework, optionally highlighted the text to flag key material, and then took brief quizzes as the end of each section. We find that when students choose to highlight, the specific pattern of highlights can explain about 13% of the variance in observed quiz scores. We explore many different representations of the pattern of highlights and discover that a low-dimensional logistic principal component based vector is most effective as input to a ridge regression model. Considering the many sources of uncontrolled variability affecting student performance, we are encouraged by the strong signal that highlights provide as to a student’s knowledge state.

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