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Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686

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Data mining for adaptive learning sequence in English language instruction

Ya-huei Wang a, Ming-Hseng Tseng b, Hung-Chang Liao c,*
Department of Applied Foreign Languages, Chung-Shan Medical University, No. 110, Section 1, Jian-Koa N. Road, Taichung 402, Taiwan
Department of Applied information Sciences, Chung-Shan Medical University, No. 110, Section 1, Jian-Koa N. Road, Taichung 402, Taiwan
Department of Health Services Administration, Chung-Shan Medical University, No. 110, Section 1, Jian-Koa N. Road, Taichung 402, Taiwan

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Keywords: The purpose of this paper is to propose an adaptive system analysis for optimizing learning sequences.
Adaptive system analysis The analysis employs a decision tree algorithm, based on students’ profiles, to discover the most adaptive
Data mining learning sequences for a particular teaching content. The profiles were created on the basis of pretesting
Teaching English as a Second Language and posttesting, and from a set of five student characteristics: gender, personality type, cognitive style,
learning style, and the students’ grades from the previous semester. This paper address the problem of
adhering to a fixed learning sequence in the traditional method of teaching English, and recommend a
rule for setting up an optimal learning sequence for facilitating students’ learning processes and for max-
imizing their learning outcome. By using the technique proposed in this paper, teachers will be able both
to lower the cost of teaching and to achieve an optimally adaptive learning sequence for students. The
results show that the power of the adaptive learning sequence lies in the way it takes into account stu-
dents’ personal characteristics and performance; for this reason, it constitutes an important innovation in
the field of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction sequencing definition for different students. Unfortunately, because

of the enormous costs universities have to pay for education in Tai-
In order to compete and survive in the twenty-first century glo- wan, it is impossible to design personalized learning environments
bal economy, it is essential that students acquire communication to accommodate each students’ learning needs. It is possible, how-
skills in English (Chen, Warden, & Chang, 2006). The goal of teach- ever, by using a decision tree algorithm, for teachers to investigate
ing English – including comprehension, listening, speaking, read- students’ learning characteristics in advance, and on the basis of this
ing, and writing proficiency – is to facilitate students’ future information to extract students’ optimal learning sequences, and
academic and professional careers. Students’ learning depends on then maximize students’ learning outcome by grouping students
what happens in the classroom, and in different classrooms there with the same learning sequence together. This paper will apply a
may be different cognitive and learning styles. In the conventional decision tree algorithm, a data mining technique, to investigate each
learning systems of Taiwan, however, teachers of English teach the students’ background and characteristics in order to optimize his or
same content to all students, without taking into consideration the her learning sequence and maximize his or her learning outcome in
individual students’ gender, personality type, cognitive style, the field of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
learning style, or previous knowledge. That is, the current courses
are based on ‘‘static” learning material, not ‘‘dynamic” learning
2. Literature review
material (Romero, Ventura, Delgado, & Bra, 2007). In this type of
learning system, if students wish to maximize their learning out-
2.1. Adaptive learning
come, they must adapt themselves to the course content, the
course content is never adapted to accommodate their individual
Since conventional classroom learning hinders students’ poten-
needs and preferences.
tial performance outcomes, it is necessary to devise techniques of
Adapting what goes on in the classroom to students’ needs in-
adaptation and personalization in order to improve their learning
volves two important issues: how to tailor courses to each individual
process. Gilbert and Han (1999) proposed the ‘‘Case-Based Reason-
students’ characteristics and capabilities, and how to create, repre-
ing” (CBR) system, according to which new students, depending on
sent, and maintain the activity tree with the appropriate associated
their prior learning experience, would be assigned to one of four
groups – the one deemed most suitable for providing them with
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +886 4 22630003; fax: +886 4 22637219. adaptive learning materials and maximizing their learning out-
E-mail address: (H.-C. Liao). come. Shang, Shi, and Chen (2001) argued the necessity of creating

0957-4174/$ - see front matter Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
7682 Y.-h. Wang et al. / Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686

an intelligent learning environment, one that would be student- teaching strategies has been carried out in a variety of educational
centered, self-paced, highly interactive, and based on students’ contexts (Chen, Liu, Ou, & Liu, 2000; Chiali, Eberrichi, & Malki,
learning characteristics, including background knowledge and 2006; Evans, 2004).
learning style. Trantafillou, Poportsis, and Demetriadis (2003) pro- While analyzing students’ learning characteristics, Chen et al.
posed an adaptive learning system called AHS (Adaptive Hyperme- (2000) applied decision tree and data cube techniques to investi-
dia System). In the AHS learning system, students would be divided gate students’ learning behaviors and observe learning processes
into two groups with different cognitive learning styles: one group to find out the pedagogical rules on students’ learning perfor-
for student demonstrating field independence, the other for those mance. By taking account of students’ learning profiles, Chen’s
showing field dependence. decision tree and data cube techniques can offer students with
Each of these proposals takes account of students’ different similar learning characteristics and profiles appropriately person-
learning styles, learning characteristics, and learning preferences alized recommendations. Furthermore, student profiles can be
in order to help them absorb course material more quickly and effi- used in adapting course materials and learning sequences (Chiali
ciently (Adler & Rae, 2002; Corno & Snow, 1986; Karagiannidis, et al., 2006; Evans, 2004; Sarasubm, 1998).
Sampson, & Cardinali, 2001). The advantage of adaptive learning
is that it offers flexible solutions by dynamically adapting content 2.4. Data mining
to each individual’s learning needs.
Data mining is a technique for uncovering hidden patterns in
2.2. Learning sequence the object or process described in the data. The uses of data mining
include the following. In the first place, by using the technique of
While using adaptation and personalization techniques to im- data mining, a little data can be made to reveal many new patterns
prove the learning process for students, instructors should also and new relationships. Second, data mining can disclose new ways
consider the sequence in which course material is taught, for it to classify data and can find clusters and associations within data.
may lie at the heart of the students’ learning process. According Third, data mining can discover new ways of facilitating better
to the IMS (Simple Sequencing Specification), version 1.0 (2007) decision making (Devroye, Gyprfi, & Lugosi, 1997). Romero, Ven-
definition, sequencing is a predictable, consistent ordering of tura, and Bra (2004) used evolutionary algorithms as a data mining
course material that delivers learning activities in an instructional- technique to discover interesting relationships in students’ usage
ly meaningful manner, without consideration of the delivery envi- data, which may be very useful to both teachers and course design-
ronment. The learning sequence can be specified by either the ers in maximizing the effectiveness of a given course. Lee (2005)
course instructors or the courseware designers. As for the sequence proposed a student model in the context of an integrated learning
of the instructional activities, it would be designed after taking full environment in which diagnostic, predictive, and compositional
account of the students’ learning behaviors and backgrounds (Co- modeling were discussed. Both diagnostic and predictive modeling
lace, De Santo, & Vento, 2005). For learning sequence has an effect are applied to issues of credit assignment and scalability. Compo-
on navigational elements, while teachers choosing the course con- sitional modeling of student profiles is used in the context of an
tent must map a sequence based on students’ characteristics in or- intelligent tutoring system/adaptive hypermedia learning system
der to facilitate the learning process. That is, teachers should pattern. Hsia, Shie, and Chen (2006) used data mining techniques
arrange different learning sequences to match each individual stu- to uncover the preferences and predict the future choices of
dents’ portfolio and learning content. Continuing Education students at the Extension Education Center
Carchiolo, Longheu, and Malgeri (2002) have proposed utilizing of a university in Taiwan. Hence, by using the data mining tech-
adaptive formative paths in a Web-based e-learning environment, nique, being referred to as database knowledge discovery, an im-
using domain database and student profiles to generate a students’ plicit pattern will be elicited from a volume of data (Klosgen &
personalized learning path. Taking into account each students’ Zytkow, 2002; Su et al., 2006).
prior knowledge and learning characteristics, the learning se-
quences are dynamically modified to match the students’ needs 2.5. Decision tree analysis
and capacities. Therefore, the adaptive learning sequence system
is effective in improving students’ learning achievement. A decision tree is a popular technique used for supervising. A
number of papers have demonstrated the successful application
2.3. Student characteristics of decision tree models to real-world problems (Luan, 2002; Pli-
onis, 2004; Timmermans & Arentze, 2003; Zalik, 2005). A deci-
In order to implement the adaptive learning sequence in the sion tree is a tool used in the description, classification, and
teaching of English, students’ characteristics or profiles should be generalization of data. It can organize descriptions of data into
analyzed. It has been shown that the analysis of students’ learning more compact form. It can also classify data into groups sharing
characteristics and profiles can help teachers understand the rea- similar features and characteristics. And it can be used to gener-
sons why students get high or low grades, by revealing the implicit alize and predict the value of dependent variables through map-
rules students follow during the learning process (Sarasubm, 1998; ping from observations about independent and dependent
Su, Tseng, Wang, & Weng, 2006). One of the most telling factors to variables to make a conclusion about these variables’ target va-
be considered is whether a students’ cognitive style is field depen- lue (Murthy, 1998).
dence or field independence (Witkin, 1962; Witkin, Moore, Goo- A decision tree can thus take the form of an algorithm that uses
denough, & Cox, 1977). Many researchers have demonstrated the information to search for prediction rules and further analyze the
impact of field dependence/field independence cognitive styles results of classification (Hsia et al., 2006). In research, decision
on students’ learning (Abraham, 1983; Brumby, 1982; Jamieson trees have the following advantages. They can be effectively ap-
& Chapelle, 1987; Summerville, 1999; Witkin, 1962; Witkin plied to all types of data structure, discrete, continuous, or mixed.
et al., 1977). It has also been demonstrated that motivation plays In addition, the prediction rules of a decision tree are easily inter-
an important role in learning a foreign language (Manolopulou- preted. Finally, it can predict accurately even in the case of highly
Sergi, 2004; Robinson, 2003; Skehan, 1998). That is, providing stu- non-linear problems (Hautaniemi, Kharait, Iwabu, Wells, & Lauf-
dents with the proper motivation can enhance their ability to learn fenburger, 2005). In sum, a decision tree can be an important tool
a new language. In addition, the combination of learning styles and in data mining.
Y.-h. Wang et al. / Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686 7683

3. Adaptive learning sequence analysis and discussions his or her characteristics. The coding of the five student character-
istics is shown in Table 1.
The purpose of this paper is to propose an adaptive system anal- For instance, the code hME, SF, FIi signifies that the student has
ysis, in order to optimize learning sequences in the TESL. The the characteristics of being mildly extroverted, of having a sense/
researchers applied the decision tree technique to extract automat- feeling learning style, and a field independent cognitive style. After
ically the optimal learning sequences of teaching content, as indi- filling out the questionnaire, all participants had to take the pretest
cated by students’ diverse characteristics, and performances. In to determine their initial level of English reading comprehension
other words, by using a decision tree, the researchers were able ability. After the pretest, they were given different handouts with
to derive a learning sequence for students that was individualized different learning sequences to precede their learning process.
and personalized. The learning sequences obtained were also opti- The codes employed in the handouts – which include the main idea
mal in terms of teaching costs, as estimated during expert panel and details, inference, critical reading, and vocabulary – are illus-
discussions. Fig. 1 shows a flow chart of method employed in our trated in Table 2.
research. The maximum number of learning sequence arrangements of
main idea and details, vocabulary, inference, and critical reading
3.1. Data collections and pretest/posttest is twenty-four ( i¼1 ¼ 24). Therefore, twenty-four handouts with
twenty-four learning sequences were derived from the sequence
In order to obtain the results of the adaptive system analysis for arrangements. Five experts in TESL participated in panel discus-
optimal learning sequences, five factors – gender, personality type, sions to decide which handouts/learning sequences would be most
cognitive style, learning style, and the grades of the previous suitable for students in Taiwan. After a series of such discussions,
semester – were selected as students’ characteristics. Fifty fresh- ten feasible learning sequences were decided upon. Table 3 shows
men participated in the experiment. The participants were stu- the ten feasible handouts/learning sequences deemed suitable for
dents in the Psychology Department who had studied English for students in Taiwan.
at least six years after junior high school. Before the experiment, All participants had to take the pretest to realize their initial le-
every student had to fill out a questionnaire designed to identify vel of English reading comprehension ability. The pretest can also

Definition of a Problem

Expert Panel Discussions to

Research Objects Selection
Derive 10 Feasible Handouts

Student Profiles Selection

Pretest for Homogeneity

Random Distribution of 10 Handouts for Experiment Implementation


Data-mining Te chnology to
Final Students’ Profiles

Acquisition of 9 Optimal
Handouts/Learning Sequences

Expert Panel Discussions to Reduce the

Number of Handouts/Learning Sequences

Fig. 1. The flow chart of research method.

7684 Y.-h. Wang et al. / Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686

Table 1 learning outcome. Using the results of the pretest, the posttest, and
Learners’ characteristics code the learning characteristics questionnaire, the students’ profiles
Characteristics Characteristics code were developed, and then the decision tree technique was used
Gender m: Male to ‘‘data mine” each students’ profiles in order to extract the opti-
f: Female mal learning sequences for that student.
Personality In: Introverted
MI: Mildly introverted
3.2. Data mining for Adaptive Learning Sequence
N: Neutral
ME: Mildly extroverted
E: Extroverted The researchers used the decision tree technique to extract the
Cognitive style FD: Field dependent
optimal learning sequences based on students’ learning profiles.
FI: Field independent The decision tree algorithm used in the study was revised from
Learning style ST: Sensing thinking
Roiger and Geatz’s algorithm (2003), which may be summarized
SF: Sensing feeling as follows:
IF: Intuition feeling
IT: Intuition thinking STEP 1. Let T be the set of training instances.
Grade from previous semester L: Low
Im: Intermediate
In this paper, the T set included input entries and output entry.
H: High
The input entries were the students’ learning characteristics,
including gender, personality type, cognitive style, learning style,
Table 2 and grade from the previous semester. The output entry was the
Handout content code optimal learning sequence, which is selected from posttest minus
Identification code Course content pretest >0. Out of the total of 50 students, 41 students fit this T set.
M Main ideas
D Details STEP 2. Choose an attribute that best differentiates the instances
I Inference contained in T.
C Critical reading
V Vocabulary
The authors set the best differentiates based on information
gain ratio (IGR) (Mitchel, 1997). In the input entries, for example,
Table 3 if the ‘personality type’ characteristic contributed more to IGR than
The handouts of learning sequence the other 3 entries, ‘personality type’ would be selected as the first
attribute. Then, In, MI, N, ME, and E would be separated for the next
Handout Learning sequence Handout Learning sequence
C1 hM, D, V, I, Ci C6 hC, M, D, I, Vi
C2 hM, D, I, C, Vi C7 hC, M, D, V, Ii
C3 hM, D, C, V, Ii C8 hV, M, D, I, Ci STEP 3. Create a tree node whose value is the chosen attribute.
C4 hM, D, I, V, Ci C9 hV, C, M, D, Ii
C5 hC, V, M, D, Ii C10 hV, M, D, C, Ii Create child links from this node where each link represents a
unique value for the chosen attribute. Use the child link values to
further subdivide the instances into subclasses. In STEP 2, the 3rd
serve as the homogenous test. The purpose of a homogenous test is
node was personality type, and the child links were In, MI, N, ME,
to insure that all participants have the same degree of skill in Eng-
and E. Continuing the child links, the other 3 input entries are con-
lish reading comprehension. The researchers used the control chart
sidered the IGR contribution for output entry. Then, the next node
method for product quality to test homogeneity (Stevenson, 2005).
for different child links is obtained.
The control chart, based on normal distribution, includes the cen-
ter line (CL), upper center line (UCL), and lower center line (LCL).
P50 STEP 4. Repeat each subclass created in STEP 3.
i¼1 i
The CL is the average grade X 50 ; where X i is the grade of ith
ðX i XÞ2 Repeat the node and child link obtained from STEP 3 until all the
student. The UCL is X þ 3S; where S ¼ i¼1
is the standard five characteristics are tested as the node.
deviation. The LCL is X  3S. The pretest results show that the stu- With the application of the decision tree algorithm to the re-
dents are in fact homogenous, as all the pretest grades are between sults of the pretest, the posttest, and the learning characteristics
UCL and LCL. Fig. 2 shows the homogeneity of the students’ pretest questionnaire, the optimal learning sequences based on students’
results. profiles were compiled and are summarized in Table 4.
After the pretest, the students were randomly given different From the above table, we can see that for introverted students
handouts with different learning sequences to precede their learn- can use either C6 or C10. Student with neutral personalities, and
ing process. Then, after six weeks of group instruction and person- who got lower grades the previous semester, may choose C1, C3,
alized instruction, a posttest was implemented to obtain students’ C8, or C9. Those students with neutral personalities, but who got
intermediate grades the previous semester, may choose C1, C2,
UCL or C5. Those students with neutral personalities who got higher
grades the previous semester may choose either C8 or C10. For stu-
dents with mildly introverted or mildly extroverted personalities,
CL the subdivisions of the decision trees would be more complicated
than those of the decision trees of students with either clearly
introverted or neutral personalities.
Mildly introverted students with a sensing/thinking learning
style and a preference for a field independent cognitive style may
Fig. 2. The homogenous test in X  3Sfor pretest. choose either C4 or C10. If they have a field dependent cognitive
Y.-h. Wang et al. / Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686 7685

Table 4 an intuition/feeling learning style may choose the C2, C3, or C10
The decision table for learning sequences optimal learning sequence. In order to save on teaching costs and
Personality Learning Grade from previous Cognitive Gender Handout facilitate the teaching process, the same five experts deciding on
style semester style the feasible handouts/learning sequences participated in the panel
In C6, C10 discussions. After these further discussions, the hierarchical deci-
N L C1, C3, C8, C9 sion tree of the optimal learning sequences/handouts was simpli-
N Im C1, C2, C5 fied, and the optimal learning sequences/handouts were
N H C8, C10
MI ST FI C4, C10
minimized to five learning sequences/handouts. The simplified
MI ST FD C6, C9 optimal learning sequences/handouts are as follows:
MI SF m C2, C4, C8
MI SF f C1, C9
MI IF C2, C3, C10 1. For
MI IT C2, C8  students with neutral personalities who got lower grades the
ME ST C2, C3, C5 previous semester,
ME SF FI C4, C5, C6  mildly introverted female students with a sense/feeling
ME SF FD C3, C6, C10
ME IF C1, C4
learning style, and
ME IT C3, C8  mildly extroverted students with an intuition/feeling learn-
ing style,
 the optimal learning sequence handout is C1.
2. For
style, they may choose either C6 or C9. Mildly introverted male stu-
 students with neutral personalities who got intermediate
dents with a sensing/feeling learning style may choose C2, C4, or
grades the previous semester,
C8. Females with the same characteristics may choose C1 or C9.
 mildly introverted students with an intuition/ feeling learn-
Mildly introverted student with an intuition/feeling learning style
ing style, and
may choose C2, C3, or C10 learning sequence. Mildly introverted
 mildly extroverted students with a sensing/thinking learning
students with an intuition/thinking learning style may choose
either C2 or C8. Mildly extroverted students with a sensing/think-
 the optimal learning sequence/handout is C2.
ing learning style may choose C2, C3, or C5. If a student has a sens-
3. For
ing/feeling learning style and a field independent cognitive style,
 mildly introverted students with a sensing/thinking learning
he or she may choose C4, C5, or C6. On the other hand, if he or
style and a field dependent cognitive style, and
she is a field dependent learner, the options are C3, C6, or C10.
 mildly extroverted students with a sensing/feeling learning
Mildly extroverted students with an intuition/feeling learning style
style and a field independent cognitive style,
may choose either C1 or C4 learning sequence. Finally, mildly
 the optimal learning sequence/handout is C6.
extroverted students with an intuition/thinking learning style
may choose either C3 or C8. 4. For
Interestingly, it can be seen from Table 4 that there are no stu-  students with neutral personalities who got higher grades the
dents who identified themselves as extroverted. The decision tree previous semester,
analysis also showed that the C7 learning sequence – critical read-  mildly introverted male students with a sensing/feeling
ing ? main idea ? details ? vocabulary ? inference – does not learning style,
occur as an optimal learning sequence. It is possible that Taiwanese  mildly introverted students with an intuition/thinking learn-
students are overly shy. In class, they sit quietly in rows and pas- ing style, and
sively copy down whatever the teacher tells them (Rendon,  mildly extroverted students with an intuition/thinking learn-
2005). It appears to be difficult for Taiwanese students to start a ing style,
learning sequence with critical reading, since the latter requires  the optimal learning sequence/handout is C8.
students to demonstrate their ability to organize, synthesize, and 5. For
criticize the material they are reading, and to express their agree-  introverted students,
ment or disagreement with it.  mildly introverted students with a sensing/thinking learning
Numerous researchers have shown that critical reading is one of style and a field independent cognitive style, and
the most effective ways to solidify students’ prior knowledge; it  mildly extroverted students with a sensing/feeling learning
can also help teach them how to construct an argument (Case, style and a field dependent cognitive style,
2002; Paul & Elder, 2001; Scriven & Paul, 2003; Taylor & Patterson,  the optimal learning sequence/handout is C10.
2000), and give them the opportunity to articulate their own origi-
nal ideas (Walstad & Becker, 1994). Yet it is difficult for Taiwanese
students to take advantage of the benefits of learning to read crit- 4. Conclusion and future research
ically. Being rooted in the hierarchical and group-oriented culture
of China, Taiwanese students have been trained to listen quietly The purpose of this paper was to propose an adaptive system
and attentively to their elders (Hong, Veach, & Lawrenz, 2004), analysis for optimizing learning sequences, in which a decision tree
and never dare to express their own opinions (Biggs & Tang, algorithm, based on student profiles, was used to extract the most
1996). Being raised in this traditional-bound and authoritarian cul- adaptive learning sequences. By applying a decision tree data min-
ture, students in Taiwan are reluctant to express their opinions in ing technique to the students’ profiles, nine optimal learning se-
class, fearing that any talking may at all may be construed as ‘‘talk- quences for personalized learning were derived, and the students
ing back” (Freire, 1970) to teachers, which would cause their fam- were grouped into fifteen optimal personalized learning groups.
ilies to lose face. Little by little they become less adventurous and In order to cut teaching costs and facilitate the teaching process,
less outgoing in nature. Thus, it is easy to see why no students after expert panel discussions, the hierarchical decision tree of
would identify themselves as extroverts. optimal learning sequences/handouts was simplified, and the sim-
In addition, some personalized groups can adopt more than one plified optimal learning sequences/handouts were minimized to
learning sequence. For instance, mildly introverted students with five learning sequences/handouts.
7686 Y.-h. Wang et al. / Expert Systems with Applications 36 (2009) 7681–7686

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