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What Makes Children Struggle with Learning? This AI Programme Helps Understand

What Makes Children Struggle with Learning? This AI Programme Helps Understand

An Artificial-Intelligence programme is helping track learning disabilities in children.

A novel machine learning technology can now help identify clusters of learning difficulties that children struggle with at school with health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism or dyslexia.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, fed a computer algorithm with cognitive testing data, including measures of listening skills, spatial reasoning, problem solving, vocabulary and memory.

Based on this data, the algorithm suggested that the children best fit into four clusters of difficulties - difficulties with working memory skills and difficulties with processing sounds in words.

The others were children with broad cognitive difficulties in many areas and children with typical cognitive test results for their age.

"By looking at children with a broad range of difficulties we found unexpectedly that many children with difficulties with processing sounds in words don't just have problems with reading - they also have problems with math," said lead author Duncan Astle from the university.

"We need to move beyond the diagnostic label and we hope this study will assist with developing better interventions that more specifically target children's individual cognitive difficulties."

Difficulties with short-term memory retention which is working memory and manipulation of information, has been linked with struggling with math and with tasks such as following lists. Difficulties which relate to phonological skills, which is processing the sounds in words, has been linked to struggling with reading.

"Our study is the first of its kind to apply machine learning to a broad spectrum of hundreds of struggling learners," Astle added.

The study, published in the journal 'Developmental Science,' recruited 550 children who were struggling at school.

Much of the previous research on learning difficulties has focused on children who had already been given a particular diagnosis, such as ADHD, autism or dyslexia.

By including children with all difficulties regardless of diagnosis, this study helped better capture the range of difficulties within, and overlap between, the diagnostic categories.

"These are interesting, early-stage findings which begin to investigate how we can apply new technologies, such as machine learning, to better understand brain function," the researchers noted.​