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Motivating Learners by Nurturing
Animal Companions: My-Pet and Our-Pet
Zhi-Hong Chen1, Yi-Chan Deng1, Chih-Yueh Chou2, Tak-Wai Chan3
Department of Computer Science & Information Engineering, National Central University,
Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan 2,
Center for Science and Technology of Learning3
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Abstract. This paper reports a pilot study of how to utilize simulated animal
companions to encourage students to pay more effort in their study in the classroom
environment. A class of students is divided into several teams. Every student keeps her
own individual animal companion, called My-Pet, which keeps a simple performance
record of its master for self-reflection. Also, every team has a team animal companion,
called Our-Pet, kept by all teammates. Our-Pet has a collective performance record
formed by all team members’ performance records. The design of Our-Pet intends to
help a team set a team goal through a competitive game among Our-Pets, and promotes
positive and helpful interactions among teammates. A preliminary experiment is
conducted in a fifth-grade class with 31 students in an elementary school, and the
experimental results show that there are both cognitive and affective gains.
Keywords: learning companion, open student model, motivation
1. Implications of Tamagotchi phenomenon in learning
“Motivation is relevant to learning, because learning is an active process requiring conscious and
deliberate activity. Even the most able students will not learn if they do not pay attention and
exert some effort” (Stipek, 2001). Motivation significantly influences learning, and how to
stimulate learners to pay more effort in their learning activities is an important issue. However,
pet keeping is a pervasive culture across gender and nationality over a long period, and some
studies have observed that pet keeping is naturally attractive to children. The relationships
built between pets and their owners are easily elicited based on the human’s attachment to
pets (Beck & Katcher, 1996; Levinson, 1969). Children clearly have a special bond with their
pets, and some researchers believe that children are naturally attracted to pets because they all
share the same personality, such as cute, simple and straightforward behaviors (Melson, 2001).
With the attachment to pet, children not only feel the feeling of be-loved, be-needed, and
other emotional support from pets, but they also tend to respond their love, and taking care of
them. Other works also note that interaction with animals increases the social competence and
learning opportunities of children (Beck & Katcher, 1996; Myers, 1998). With technology
advancement, some technological substitutes for pets have been created. One example is the
well-known Tamagotchi (Webster, 1998; Pesce, 2000). Although it is merely simple animated
pictures and some buttons, children are quite devoted to the process of nurturing a virtual
chicken, caring for it from an egg to a mature rooster.
Our work was inspired by the idea of applying Tamagotchi from pure entertainment to
educational field as well as the work on learning companion, a simulated agent that mimics
the student herself and provides companionship to the student (Chan, 1996). Animal
companions are one kind of learning companions especially designed for pupils. What are
implications of Tamagotchi phenomenon in learning? There is an array of interesting research
questions to answer on how animal companion may affect self-beliefs, cognitive domain,
affective domain, and social domain on students as well as system design. There are two
different perspectives towards how people develop beliefs about themselves on motivation
and achievement: intelligence or effort (Dweck, 2000). Does more effort significantly affect
more positively on learning performance? Is it important for students in the process of
developing the belief that success depends on effort rather than on intelligence if they
experience that paying effort really contribute to better learning performance? If the answer is
yes, then when we deploy animal companion in learning, can we reinforce that belief and
become an attitude of students? it further involves several research questions: (1) How to
design a goal and a set of mechanisms when incorporating animal companion into a learning
environment that will motivate learners to engage in the learning activities and promotes more
learning effort for achieving their goal? (2) Besides individual effort, could the learning
environment also promote group learning efforts (e.g. mutual monitoring and encouragement
for individual learning as well as collaborative learning? (3) For a student, besides feeling
responsible for taking care of her animal companion, a healthily growing animal companion
also represents her pride and achievement. How these affects impact her learning and can
these be under her control? (4) Could such technological substitutes for pets also have the
same benefits described above as the real pets? In this paper, the former two questions are
focused, and the other two questions will be addressed in our following investigation.
For answering these research questions, a simple version of My-Pet system (Chen et al.,
2001; 2002; Chen et al., 2003) is developed and deployed to EduCities (Chan et al., 2001;
Chang et al., 2003), a web-based environment in the internet, for testing its initial feasibility.
In this study, we have the improved version of My-Pet integrated with Our-Pet system to
form the My-Pet-Our-Pet system. The system was used in an elementary classroom. We
believe that My-Pet-Our-Pet is a rather specific example of adopting the concept of open
student model (Self, 1988; Kay, 1997; Bull, 1998; Bull, 2004), a means for extending
application range of student modeling. The learners are grouped into several teams, in which
each learner is surrounded by two kinds of animal companions: individual animal companion,
called My-Pet, and team animal companion, called Our-Pet. The repertoire of activities in
My-Pet-Our-Pet consists of four modes: nurturing My-Pet mode, learning mode, inspecting
My-Pet-Our-Pet mode, and team Our-Pet competition mode.
Nurturing My-Pet mode: My-Pet is a computer-simulated pet needing a student’s nurture and
care. In order to take good care of My-Pet, the student needs to make effort to learn so that she
can earn the pet’s food and eligibility to use some caring tools. For example, while My-Pet’s
energy level is low because it is hungry, the student has to spend her “coins” to buy food.
However, these “coins” are designed to be earned according to the amount of effort paid by the
student in the learning activity. In this mode, My-Pet plays two roles: motivator and sustainer.
Based on the student’s attachment to My-Pet and good will for it, the student is motivated to take
action to learn. The good will is the cause and learning is the effect. Such design is similar to
what Rieber called “sugar coating” (Rieber, 1996). Although this initial motivation for
learning is not for the purpose of learning itself, however, if the student later finds that the
subject matter required for learning is an intriguing and rewarding experience, this initial
motivation may change qualitatively to motivation for learning this subject matter itself. In
addition, pet keeping is a regular and long-term activity. With appropriate reinforcement,
My-Pet may be able to sustain some desired student behaviors to become a habit. It is quite
possible that nurturing My-Pet is the real intention of the students and learning is just happened
to be a side-effect in the process of nurturing. This mode is sort of “package” mode for
subsequent learning activities.
Learning mode: The learning task is to learn about and apply idiomatic phrases. A student could
read the historical story to understand the original meaning, identify the key words and key
sentences, and then practice the application of these phrases in different contexts. An
important component of My-Pet is its master’s performance record. It is recorded in two levels:
domain and attribute. Domains include cognitive, emotional, and social domains, as shown in
Figure 1. For cognitive domain, My-Pet adopts a simple overlapping modeling approach, and
there are three attributes: “remembering”, “understanding”, and “applying,” with values are
numerically recorded according to student’s mastery level. Furthermore, the representation of
attribute values of cognitive domain has two levels: detailed value and summarized value. The
detailed value is presented aside each phrase, and the summarized value is the aggregation of
the detailed values. This information makes the student quickly aware of her own
performance about the learning task in the activity.
Figure 1. Inspecting performance records reflected by My-Pet and Our-Pet
The emotional domain consists of two attributes: “confidence” and “interest”.
“Confidence” is evaluated by the rate of successes of answering questions correctly, and
“interest” is determined by the frequency the student involved in learning activities of a topic
even if she is not asked to do so or after class. With this information, the student could grasp
easily the sense of how much effort she has paid. In the social domain, there are two attributes
“reminding” and “helping” recorded according to student’s interactions among teammates.
The attribute values are collected by an honor system in current version, that is, the student
reports to My-Pet how many times she “reminds” or “helps” her teammates to study in each
session. Moreover, for helping students understand their situation with impression, My-Pet’s
emotional status and passively-initiated dialogues are designed to disclose the status of three
domains based on some heuristics. For example, if a student’s value in cognitive domain is
low, My-Pet’s mood will be sad. If the student initiates a conversation with My-Pet, it will tell
the student what is the cause of its sadness. In this mode, My-Pet plays the role of
self-reflector. Self-reflection through viewing the “internal” representation of My-Pet, which
is essentially the performance record of the student in different domains, can help the student
look at herself and hence understand herself better or enhance her self-awareness. In other
words, My-Pet is sort of the mirror of the student. While the student looks at this performance
record of My-Pet, she actually observes the result of her own learning effort.
Inspecting My-Pet-Our-Pet mode: Our-Pet is a team’s pet that is commonly owned by four
teammates. An important component of Our-Pet that largely governs the behavior of Our-Pet
is a collective performance record, “inspectable” by all members. There are three levels of the
collective performance record: domain, attribute, and viewpoint. The domains and attributes
are the same as those in My-Pets. For each domain and each attribute, there are four kinds of
viewpoints: “average”, “minimum”, “maximum”, and “variance.” Through “average”
viewpoint, a student may view the average status of her team’s mastery values in the
cognitive domain so that she can know the team’s overall situation. Through “minimum”
viewpoint, all teammates can view mastery value of the weakest teammate, and other
teammates will then naturally be urged to “help” or “remind” the weakest one to do more
remedial work. Through “maximum” viewpoint, the strongest teammate’s value will be
observed, and it encourages the strongest one to do more for enrichment and strives for
excellence, but this will increase their “variance.” Therefore, it also urges the stronger
teammates to help the weaker teammates so that they can narrow their gaps. The mechanisms
for affective and social domains are similar to that of the cognitive domain. To provide
different perspectives to promote self-reflection, Our-Pet’s passively-initiated dialogues are
designed to express the different statuses between My-Pet and Our-Pet in three domains based
on the rule-based mechanism. For example, if a student finds her My-Pet’s values in the
cognitive domain are low. She may talk to Our-Pet, which then prompts the student what
situation her performance is, what situation the team performance is, and what actions she can
take to improve.
In this mode, My-Pet and Our Pet plays two roles: self-reflector and improvement
indicator. Different from the reflector role played in the learning mode in which a student can
only inspect her My-Pet, the student in this mode could observe both My-Pet and Our-Pet,
and self-reflection is consequently further promoted. Moreover, by comparing these different
perspectives of information, she knows what she has mastered, what she has not mastered,
what other teammates have mastered, what other teammates have not mastered, and the
directions to improve her current status or help other teammates.
Our-Pet competition mode: Our-Pets involve in a series of team competition games. Winning
or losing a game will depend on attribute values of the two competing Our-Pets. Each game
has four rounds of contests. The final result of a game is calculated by accumulating the
results of four rounds and there is a ranking of all teams. A student represents her team in one
round will rotate three turntables to determine which domain, which attribute, and which
viewpoint of Our-Pet to compete against the other team. In other words, the chance of
Our-Pet winning the game depends on some attribute values of teammates. To increase
winning chance, it demands the whole team’s effort to improve all these attribute values.
Team competition of Our-Pets forms the situation of intra-team collaboration, helps the whole
team establish their common goal, and urges all teammates to work hard for learning.
Moreover, it promotes the collaboration which not only needs individual accountability in the
team, but also encourages positive and helpful interactions among the teammates. Therefore,
in this mode, the roles of Our-Pet are goal setter and motivator for promoting both individual
and collaborative effort for learning.
A preliminary experiment of My-Pet-Our-Pet was conducted in a classroom of Wang-Fang
elementary school (see Figure 2) from November 2004 to January 2005. The classroom was a
one-on-one classroom environment, that is, every student in this classroom has a computing
device with wireless capability (see www.g1on1.org). Due to the constraint of regular school
timetable in Wang-Fang elementary school, comparison of influences of My-Pet and Our-Pet
on students still need further assessment. The objective of this experiment mainly focuses on
evaluating the learning effect and affective influences of My-Pet-Our-Pet. The subjects were
31 fifth-grade students and they were arranged to eight 4-children teams (except the eighth
team only has 3 students) with their academic performance well-mixed, that is, each team had
one high-performance student, two mid-performance students, and one low-performance
student. The experiment was divided into two phases, and each phase students used Tablet
PCs for 10 fifteen-minute sessions in the class for one and a half months. However, only
learning material was provided in the first phase for the control group, and both learning
material and My-Pet-Our-Pet were provided in the second phase.
We addressed two questions, one in cognitive domain and one in affective domain, in
this experiment. The cognitive question is: what are the learning effects after students use
My-Pet-Our-Pet? The affective question is: what about their affective experience of using
My-Pet-Our-Pet in the classroom environment? For the cognitive question, pre-test and
post-test were administered for forty minutes in each phase. Each test has fifty items and
contains three categories of questions: memorizing, understanding, and applying. To collect
affective experience data, face-to-face interviews in the classroom were taken for further
analysis and discussion.
The results of pre-test and post-test in the two phases are illustrated in Figure 3. Figure 3 (a) is
the score distribution of the first phase, where the pre-test (blue dotted-line) and post-test (red
concrete-line) are almost the same. However, in figure 3(b), score distribution of the second
phase was obviously different, where most of the scores in post-test were higher than pre-test,
and is statistically significant (p<.005) in the paired-sample test, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Result of paired sample test in two phases
Figure 2. Snapshots of My-Pet-Our-Pet used in the 1:1 classroom environment
Mean Std. Dev. T p(Sig.)
Post-test – pre-test in 1st phase -2.65 5.782 -2.547 .016
Post-test – pre-test in 2nd phase 18.19 10.663 9.5 .0001
3.2 Feedbacks from interview
For collecting students’ affective experience, interviews are conducted and summarized as
following. First, in the mode of “nurturing My-Pet”, while students were asked to compare their
feelings in the two phases, 31 students were all impressed and enjoyed in the process of raising
“I like pets very much, but I can’t keep pets in at home. In My-Pet-Our-Pet, I can take
care of my own pets, and it is very interesting.” (student #34)
“It (My-Pet-Our-Pet) uses many ways to make us feel that learning idiomatic phrases is
an appealing task.” (student #28)
“My learning progress has doubly increased. I love My-Pet-Our-Pet because I not only
can learn idiomatic phrase, but nurture pets.” (student #27)
Second, in the learning mode, when the students were asked to compare their engagement
in these two phases, 2 students expressed that they were all the same to them, because they felt
that learning idiomatic phrases is boring. 29 students stated that they were more engaged in the
reading session in second phase.
“I will take it seriously, because I want to earn coins to nurture my pet.” (student #22)
“Of course, I must pass the assessment, and then I could gain the coins.” (student #12)
Besides, 26 students felt that My-Pet’s emotional expression is an effective way to
convey information and learning status to its master, and further affects the students’ behavior,
especially taking initiative to learn.
“When I’m seeing My-Pet’s mood is happy, I feel better too. But when it was depressed
or unhappy, I would think what’s wrong? Then taking it along to buy candies with coins, to
learn idiomatic phrase, and it will be happy.” (student #27)
“If my pet is sad, I will also feel unhappy. It seems to be my real pet” (student #13)
Third, in the inspecting My-Pet and Our-Pet mode, we asked “whether the inspecting
functions provided by My-Pet and Our-Pet are helpful to you?” 27 students feel that they are
convenient ways to understand their own learning statuses.
“I care its (My-Pet’s) status, because its status is equal to my learning status.”
“I frequently see the average values of Our-Pet, and it lets me know what our team’s
situation is. Then I go back to study hard for earning coins.” (student #25)
“When seeing my value is the highest among four people, I encourage them. I had
encouraged all our teammates.” (student #27)
(a) scores of pre-test and post-test in 1st phase (b) scores of pre-test and post-test in 2nd phase
Figure 3. Scores of pre-test and post-test in two phases
Finally, in the Our-Pet competition mode, the question is: “how team competition of
Our-Pet affects the interaction with other teammates?” 4 students rarely care about team
competition; 27 students are affected by Our-Pet competition. (15 students felt that team
competition was the matters of honor and solidarity, and hence facilitated their communication
and interaction. However, other 12 students seldom interacted with other teammates, but learned
“In the beginning, our team’s competitive ranking is the last, and then becomes the fifth.
Because of that, I tell them (other two boys) to study more for raising the values, to earn coins
harder.” (student #2)
“We (students #33 & #22) discussed the idiomatic phrase together. Sometimes we two
girls answered the question together, and sometimes one found out the answer, and the other
responded.” (student #33)
According to the results of experiment, we found that all 31 students were engaged and
enjoyed in raising My-Pet, and 29 students were willing to pay more learning efforts to improve
their learning progress reflected by My-Pet and Our-Pet. Consequently, they earned better
academic performances. Moreover, in order to win in the team competition of Our-Pet, 15
students were often monitored and encouraged each other while learning. In other words, the
design of My-Pet-Our-Pet had promoted the individual’s learning effort, and group learning
effort. However, regarding to collaborative learning among teammates, it seldom happened.
What were the reasons? Analyzing the content of students’ dialogues, we found that topics of
“what should we name our team?” or “which team should we select as our opponent?” were
more popular. For team competition, against our expectation, most students went back to study
harder by themselves, rather than having more interactions (collaboration) with other teammates.
There are some possible reasons: (1) Learning activities that need all members’ decision
could trigger discussion and collaboration, and the four modes in My-Pet-Our-Pet lack such
designs. (2) If the roles played by teammates were more diversified and each role is essential for
winning, then it facilitated more teamwork. In My-Pet-Our-Pet, the teammate’s roles were the
same. (3) There are no findings to support the original hypothesis: the stronger tends to help the
weaker for team competition. Team’s ranking indeed stands for teammates’ honor, but some
factors also have significant influences, such as students’ personality (if a student is shy and
introvert, then she may not be very social), gender difference (girls like to play with girls, rather
than boys), and friendship (some students ask us why couldn’t let them find their good friends to
form a team).
In this paper, we described and discussed the design rationales of a system called
My-Pet-Our-Pet which does not only encourages students to work hard in learning, but also
promotes helpful interactions through the representation of the individual and the collective
performance records kept in My-Pet and Our-Pet, respectively. The preliminary results show
that all 31 students indeed were engaged and enjoyed in the process of raising their pets, and
most of them (29 students) paid more effort to improve their learning statuses reflected by
My-Pet and Our-Pet, and academic performance improvement is statistically significant by
comparing the two successive phases. Furthermore, teams’ learning efforts were also
promoted. About half of students (15 students) would mutually monitor and encourage each
other to achieve their common goal. The quality and the design of interactions in
collaborative learning should be enhanced and enriched because compared to the pure
Web-based virtual environment, learning in the classroom environment, where the personal
interactions are direct, is more complex. To address these issues, more formal evaluations are
Most people conceive computer as a tool. Artificial intelligence researchers intend to
make computer more than a tool. A candidate for them to pursue this goal is intelligent agent,
which is required to be autonomous so that it can take initiative to interact with its user. On
the contrary, for animal companion, a student takes a much stronger initiative for interacting
with it. This is because users have a model on any entity they are interacting with. The animal
companion is portrayed as a pet in real lives, urging a student’s innate drive to nurture it.
Animal companion is not an autonomous agent, though in some occasions it can or should,
nor a tool. Even there is a role of tool in animal companion, it is implicit and is used, at least
on the surface, only for the sake of taking care of the animal companion itself.
Learning achievement is usually what a student cares about most, through which her
self-concept and identity develop. Now, her animal companion is another thing the student
cares about, so much as if it were her second identity. Furthermore, animal companions serve
as “mirrors” on which a student interacts with in meaningful and fruitful ways, supporting
active self-reflection on cognitive, affective and social domains.
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