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Virtual tutor and pupil interaction: A study of empathic feedback as extrinsic motivation for learning

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Virtual tutors are a promising technology, providing a rich interactive environment for children to learn in. However, the question of how they should behave in order to enhance pupils’ motivation remains unanswered. Using an embodied conversational agent platform, we tested human-computer interactions with 22 children aged 9–11 years. Children performed several numeracy exercises set by two different virtual agents. One agent provided solely verbal feedback (unimodal), while the other one combined facial expressions based on real muscle contractions with its verbal feedback (bimodal). Children then completed a perceived social support questionnaire. Qualitative and quantitative data were subjected to inferential statistical tests. Results showed that the overall duration of agent-pupil interactions varied, children found the bimodal agent more empathic, and produced significantly more correct answers. Moreover, there was a positive correlation between accuracy and mean reaction times for correct answers with the bimodal agent. The lack of a correlation for the unimodal agent is discussed in the light of empathy and motivation in social cognition.

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Data Availability

Data available on request from the authors.


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This work was partially performed within the Labex SMART (ANR-11-LABX-65) supported by French state funds managed by the ANR within the “Investissements d’Avenir” program under reference ANR-11-IDEX-0004-02. It has also been partially funded by the French National Research Agency project MaClasse 3.0.

Author information

A Oker designed and carried out the experiment and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. F. Pecune helped to code the experiment in the virtual agent platform. C. Declercq supervised the final version of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Ali Oker.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee (local French authorities) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consents were obtained from all underage participants’ family or legal representatives and included in the study, as well as from the school’s authorities in France.

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Oker, A., Pecune, F. & Declercq, C. Virtual tutor and pupil interaction: A study of empathic feedback as extrinsic motivation for learning. Educ Inf Technol (2020).

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  • Empathy
  • Virtual agents
  • Learning
  • Feedback
  • Motivation