Over the last decade, we’ve seen an explosion in e-learning tools like mobile apps. And the majority of teachers seem to be happy about it. According to a report by Statista, nearly 65% of educators say they support open education resources (OER), a term for e-learning tools that are accessible to the public. The question is, are all educational apps created equal?
Today we’ll discuss 5 key qualities that make mobile math apps effective. All e-learning apps and games promise to educate children by making math fun. The most effective ones promise even more:
- To prioritize tutorials and repeated directions that mirrors classroom direction
- To keep children engaged
- To provide lessons that build rather repeating the same skills level
- To share performance metrics that track your child’s progress
- To personalize lessons by analyzing those metrics to show each child’s strengths and weaknesses
Effective e-learning requires effective instruction
“Don’t make me repeat myself” is something parents or teachers often say right before they repeat themselves. It’s no secret that kids need a bit more direction than the average adult – whether that be in the classroom or in an app. If they don’t understand how to play the game, they’ll never win new math skills. Researchers have found that 89% of educational apps use “drill-and-practice” instruction – if they provide instruction at all. We talked to Chris Trutanich, founder and creator of the math app The Mathstronaut to understand how educational apps do better. In The Mathstronaut, first through fifth graders learn foundational math skills by saving the solar system one skill at a time.
Q: Most e-learning apps don’t have advanced instruction or a tutorial. Why did you include those?
Chris: The goal is to put the child in the place of the hero. In order to do that, we created Rubix, a companion who helps the Mathstronaut (aka the child) save the solar system. This means instruction is reinforced on each level in a fun way. We knew the value of instruction that goes above and beyond a list of rules. To keep children engaged as they’re learning to play, we created an interactive tutorial that takes them through gameplay in a story-esque fashion, where they learn how to play the game as they are introduced to new concepts and controls. This way they don’t have to sit through an entire tutorial before actually playing. An interactive tutorial gives them a hands-on approach to learn how to play and doesn’t interrupt their experience of the game.
Educational apps should keep kids engaged
E-learning apps help kids learn by helping them have fun. And having fun starts with engagement. That’s why apps should be able to grab students’ attention and, what’s more important, hold it until a lesson is complete. If they don’t buy into the fun, they certainly won’t buy into their lessons.
Successful math apps keep kids interested with features like eye-catching graphics, fun facts and sometimes pop-ups that help kids get back on track or offer timely statistics. It’s worth noting that there is a fine line between graphics that engross and graphics that distract. When deciding where a certain app fits in, ask yourself, are these graphics enhancing the learning objective, or do they feel as aimless as a confetti cannon?
Another way to ask is, do all of the features come together like a good book? Creating an exciting narrative is a great way to do this.
Strong math games go beyond memorization
Learn to spot the difference between an app that involves math and an app that increases math skills. Think of the math game in question as a first-grade textbook. Does the app have a game for every chapter, or does it repeat chapter 1 on a loop?
Look for math games that offer lessons in multiple skills at multiple levels. Second grade multiplication, third grade mental math and 4th grade division can all fit within an app. In addition, skills should build on each other. That way, the more students play, the more they learn.
Q: How did you design the levels of The Mathstronaut?
Each grade (1st through 5th) has its own curriculum taught one skill at a time as they advance through the solar system. We keep the questions challenging but simple enough to really engage mental computing in a fast-paced environment. Beyond math skills, we also work on critical thinking and working memory as children learn to stay focused and composed while problem-solving.
Performance metrics + personalization are a must
Teachers know all too well that students learn different ways at different speeds. And of course they have different strengths and weaknesses. Apps offer a one-on-one experience that most classrooms simply can’t. That presents an enormous opportunity to tailor each game to meet the specific needs of each student.
Much like teachers test in the classroom, math apps should monitor progress. That’s where performance metrics come in. Look for apps that measure key aspects like accuracy and speed. Our favorite apps keep these stats handy in a section dedicated to parents and teachers. Think of a mini report card, updated in real time, within an app.
If step one is to gather the data, step two is to analyze it. Games with performance metrics but no analytics constitute a swing and a miss. What good is knowing that your child missed 10% of their questions if you don’t know which ones they are? Effective math apps offer personalization, meaning the ability to tailor lessons to each player. Personalization answers questions like:
- Which skills does my child need to practice most?
- Where are their greatest strengths?
- Are they improving weak or new skills over time?
After data and analysis, it’s time to take action. Apps that nail the first two have one final test. Do they go beyond identifying problems to implementing solutions? Let’s say you see your second grader is struggling with multiples of 13. Before you bust out the flashcards, see if the app will do it for you by adding more problems that involve the number 13 or offering a tutorial. To provide maximum benefits, apps should be adaptable.
Q: How can a math app adapt to suit children’s performance?
The Mathstronaut does this two ways. First, an algorithm within the game detects when a player needs a little extra help and adjusts certain parameters, like speed of play, in real time. There’s also a built-in practice area, where users can practice weak skills without the pressure of saving the solar system at the same time. After each level, children can see whether they have skills that could use practice. A Parents’ Room also gives parents and teachers more advanced information on how children are performing. We encourage parents to look for educational apps and games that not only show you performance metrics, but also make adjustments based on those metrics to improve your child’s learning experience.
Check out The Mathstronaut for free on iOS.