Can interactive apps teach mathematics better than traditional instruction?

Despite concerns regarding the potentially devious effect of screen time on children, scientific evidence has been clear in demonstrating at length the efficiency of various digital applications for teaching mathematics. This begs the question: are apps better, or are they just as good as traditional teaching methods for the acquisition of basic mathematical skills?

Study smarter, not harder

A study published in 2019 demonstrated that within a well-balanced mathematical curriculum consisting of whole class activities complemented with small-group based instruction, replacing small-group based instruction with interactive app playtime is significantly beneficial for student achievement in mathematics. In their experiments, the researchers picked a cohort of 461 students aged 4-5 years old in the UK and divided it into three study groups as follows:

– Group 1: whole class activities + small-group based instruction + mathematical app

– Group 2: whole class activities + mathematical app

– Group 3: whole class activities + small-group based instruction

Their results in a paper-based math assessment before and after a 12 week period following the previous study plan proved the results of students in groups 1 and 2 to be significantly higher than that of students in group 3 (Outhwaite 2019 : 292).

This means that once students follow whole class mathematical activities, they are better off studying “smarter” doing playful practice on a mathematical application than studying “harder” receiving small-group based instruction. Even once they follow both whole class activities and mathematical app time, doing additional small-group based instruction proves insignificant regarding their results. In that sense, apps seem better than traditional teaching methods when it comes to complementing whole class activities.

From classrooms to screens?

So should we substitute classroom teaching with individual app-based learning? In light of the number of students and parents who found themselves left to their own devices during the precipitated transition to online learning caused by the pandemic, a “yes” and with it the promise that students can take care of their own learning efficiently in irregular situations would have been comforting. The answer, however, is a “not so fast”…

Indeed, the very same study that proves app-based interactive learning efficient has only tested said application in the context of a solid classroom instruction including whole class activities and potentially also small-group based instruction. The authors themselves warn that the “technology alone will not lead to success; but is dependent on how the technology is integrated into the school environment” (Outhwaite 2019 : 294)

Moreover, they highlight the fact that the efficiency of mathematical apps might also be accounted for by their “active (e.g., multisensory and direct interactions), engaged (e.g., feedback), meaningful (e.g. a staged and scaffolded curriculum), and socially interactive learning (e.g., through the on-screen teacher)” (Outhwaite 2019 : 293) In other words, not just any mathematical app will do.

Test digital interactive teaching yourself

Therefore, it is not a matter of “interactive apps vs traditional instruction”. The question is rather “how much of a scientific evidence based learning type of interactive apps for how much traditional instruction.” Moreover, as of today, interactive apps are far from being integrated into regular school curricula. So parents, teachers, where will you find the right interactive apps to optimise the learning of your children and pupils?

Luckily for you, Recreamaths is providing you with 10 interactive ebooks applying the principles of effective teaching: they are active in that they require children’s interaction with the ebook on screen, engaged in that they provide feedback to their answers in the various exercises, meaningful in that said exercises are embedded in socially relevant storylines, and interactive in that the characters direct themselves to the student-reader in an immersive way.

The ebooks will be available for download for free and will allow you – parents and teachers – to let your children and pupils study smarter, and achieve better math results.

Bibliography : Outhwaite, Laura A., et al. “Raising early achievement in math with interactive apps: A randomized control trial.” Journal of educational psychology 111.2 (2019): 284