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Teachable Agents and the Protégé Effect: Increasing the Effort Towards Learning


Betty’s Brain is a computer-based learning environment that capitalizes on the social aspects of learning. In Betty’s Brain, students instruct a character called a Teachable Agent (TA) which can reason based on how it is taught. Two studies demonstrate the protégé effect: students make greater effort to learn for their TAs than they do for themselves. The first study involved 8th-grade students learning biology. Although all students worked with the same Betty’s Brain software, students in the TA condition believed they were teaching their TAs, while in another condition, they believed they were learning for themselves. TA students spent more time on learning activities (e.g., reading) and also learned more. These beneficial effects were most pronounced for lower achieving children. The second study used a verbal protocol with 5th-grade students to determine the possible causes of the protégé effect. As before, students learned either for their TAs or for themselves. Like study 1, students in the TA condition spent more time on learning activities. These children treated their TAs socially by attributing mental states and responsibility to them. They were also more likely to acknowledge errors by displaying negative affect and making attributions for the causes of failures. Perhaps having a TA invokes a sense of responsibility that motivates learning, provides an environment in which knowledge can be improved through revision, and protects students’ egos from the psychological ramifications of failure.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grants EHR-0634044, SLC-0354453, and by the Department of Education under grant IES R305H060089. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the granting agencies.

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Correspondence to Catherine C. Chase.



Fever Passage (Studies 1 and 2)

Many people worry when they get a fever. But, a fever can be a good thing. It’s part of your body’s defense system and means your body is working to kill an infection. A fever means the body is hot, and the heat helps to kill germs like bacteria and viruses.

How does the body increase its temperature? The brain has a set point that determines how hot the body gets. When the set point rises, it causes the body to get hotter. The set point rises when germs invade the body. When this happens, your brain tells the body that the temperature must be raised a few degrees to kill the germs.

There are four different ways the set point causes the body temperature to increase. One way is to decrease blood flow to the skin, by shrinking the veins (blood vessels). When less blood gets near the skin, the blood cannot release as much heat through the skin. This explains why people can have a fever but still feel cold in their hands and feet. There is less blood near the skin.

A second way is shivering. Shivering makes the muscles move. When muscles move, they produce heat. Shivering can make the body produce more heat than normal.

A third way is to raise body hairs. When the small hairs on the body stand up, pores (small holes) in the skin close. This means less heat can escape through the pores. It also means that less sweat can escape through the skin. When you have a fever, you sweat less, because sweating cools the body. Raised hair explains why a fever causes a person’s skin to feel tender. The little hairs get rubbed and irritate the skin.

A fourth way is to increase the body’s metabolism. A higher metabolism means that the body burns energy faster, and this causes it to produce more heat. Higher metabolism explains why people have faster breathing and a faster heart rate when they have a fever. A body with high metabolism needs more blood and oxygen.

If the body gets too hot, it will begin to kill its own cells. How does the body stop from getting too hot? When the body temperature reaches the set point, all the processes reverse. Blood goes to the skin, shivering stops, the hairs lie down, and metabolism decreases. Aspirin and Tylenol help reduce a fever by bringing down the set point, so the body stops trying to heat up. The good thing about aspirin is that it makes you feel better. The bad part is that there is less fever to help kill the germs.

Posttest Questions (Study 1)


  1. (1)

    Even though a fever feels bad, it can still be good for you. Why?

  2. (2)

    If you hold hands with someone who has a fever:

  • The person’s hand feels (circle one):

  1. (a)


  2. (b)


  • The person’s hand feels (circle one):

  1. (a)


  2. (b)



(3) Explain what body hairs have to do with causing a fever. If there are many steps in the process, be sure to describe all of them clearly.

(4) Why is shivering not enough to cause a fever?


(5) Here is a common situation. People wake up all sweaty, and their flu is gone. Why are they sweaty?

(6) Why does a dry nose mean a dog might have a fever?

Posttest Questions (Study 2)


1. Why do your hands and feet get cold when you have a fever?

2. What does Aspirin or Tylenol do?


3. How does the body stop having a fever?

4. When do you know that your body is recovering, and why?

Causal Reasoning

5. If raised body hair increases, what happens to heat release? Why?

6. If bloodflow to the skin decreases, what happens to heat production? Why?

7. If temperature set point increases, what happens to heat release? Why?

8. If germs decrease, what happens to sweat? Why?

9. If shivering increases, what happens to body temperature? Why?

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Chase, C.C., Chin, D.B., Oppezzo, M.A. et al. Teachable Agents and the Protégé Effect: Increasing the Effort Towards Learning. J Sci Educ Technol 18, 334–352 (2009).

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  • Educational technology
  • Motivation
  • K-12 education
  • Peer tutoring