UCF students will benefit from a $7.6 million grant that expands the use of chatbots in foundational math and English courses.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded the grant to the National Institute of Student Success (NISS) at Georgia State University, which partners with UCF, Perimeter College at GSU and Morgan State University in Maryland to test student outcomes linked to artificial intelligence-enhanced chatbots. The highly competitive Postsecondary Student Success Program supports innovative approaches to improving national student outcomes.

Previous studies demonstrated chatbots increase grades and retention rates among lower-income and first-generation students through personalized and timely support. For instance, the chatbot complements the course instructor’s work by reminding students of upcoming assignments and offering encouragement and tips when they struggle.

“Because of their schedules, students with jobs and families currently are less likely to attend after-class tutoring and study sessions,” says Tim Renick, NISS founding executive director and project lead for the grant. “The chatbots we are developing can support students 24/7, answer questions after hours and keep students on track in these challenging courses.”

KnightBot powered by Mainstay launched at UCF in 2020 as both a two-way text feature to reach specific students and an interactive web tool on select websites. It’s used, for example, to remind students of upcoming financial aid and enrollment deadlines. High-traffic websites that field frequent questions like Housing and Residence Life can offer 24/7 availability thanks to KnightBot.

“Student success is a top priority at UCF, and we’re excited to elevate our use of this promising technology to positively impact student outcomes,” says Ryan Goodwin, assistant vice president for strategy and innovation in UCF’s Division of Student Success and Well-Being. “We are excited to work with our partners at Georgia State University and Morgan State University at the forefront of the student success movement to make an even greater impact on our students.”

Georgia State’s use of AI-enhanced chatbot technology dates to 2016 when it piloted a program aimed at reducing “summer melt,” a term describing the phenomenon of high school graduates accepted to college failing to register for fall classes. By communicating with students over the summer through text message reminders and two-way question-and-answer capabilities, Georgia State reduced summer melt from 19% to 9%, according to Renick.

Now chatbots are expanding with an integration into core math and English courses. The objective is higher grades in those foundational courses, setting students up for better performance in later courses and, ultimately, a degree.

Performing well in their first college math and English courses has an outsized impact on a student’s later academic success, according to Renick. A student who passes the courses during their initial 12 months at Perimeter College, for example, is nine times more likely to graduate.

“It’s not just because they are required courses,” Renick says. “It’s because the skills that students are learning in those courses are disproportionately impactful on how they’ll do in subsequent courses.”

By Fall 2024, researchers will begin piloting the chatbots in courses at each location with the aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the tool across a variety of demographic profiles served by each institution.