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Scientists to App Developers: Tap Learning Science to Be More Effective

Education apps are pitched to help students' learning, but often don't align with what we know about the science of learning and memory, researchers argue.

In a new commentary in Nature's Science of Learning journal, cognitive psychologists from the Swiss Distance Learning University, the University of Bonn in Germany, and the University of Bern in Switzerland laid out four key findings on learning and memory that could make education apps more effective.   

The popularity and variety of educational apps have exploded in the last decade, but for all the advocates of using the devices, there are rising numbers of educators critical of their use. And research to date has been pretty mixed about the effectiveness of using education apps generally in the classroom. The commentary authors note one meta-analysis found education apps may moderately improve student learning, but a longer-term analysis found such effects faded over time, suggesting:

"The initial boost in learning thus seems not due to exclusive features of [education apps] often believed to be beneficial for learning or the specific design features of the learning app in question. Rather it seems that initial excitement and boost in motivation of the students as they first got to use [education apps] in an educational setting is responsible for these positive effects. Considering the vast amounts of money spent on [this technology] in educational settings, relative to the cost of more traditional learning approaches (e.g., textbooks), this outcome is rather disappointingly sobering."

The researchers call for app developers and education practitioners to focus on four areas where partnerships between cognitive science and app developers could improve learning in the classroom:

  1. Leverage the "testing effect." Studies have repeatedly shown that students who study by actively testing their knowledge and skills remember more than those who read over notes or otherwise take in information passively. App developers could test different ratios for exposing students to new material and engaging them in quizzes or other tests to build evidence for the best pattern.
  2. Setting reminders. In live sessions, research suggests marathon crams generally don't help students remember as much as study sessions distributed over several days, and this may apply to practicing math or other subjects using apps, the authors note. App-based programs like Khan Academy already allow teachers to track students' time using the program, but the researchers suggest educators and program officials experiment with reminding students to use the apps for practice at different times before a test.
  3. Address multiple senses. Video games have long used several simultaneous ways of presenting material in a tutorial, from directions on the screen to explanations from another character to asking the player to work through a task to learn a new strategy. But learning apps don't always present new information across multiple modes, the authors note. Apps designed to present material in multiple ways—or allow educators to experiment with different ways of presenting information—could improve memory and expand access for children with different learning needs.
  4. Increase feedback. Providing feedback is one of the most consistent ways found to improve learning—but studies suggest students benefit more from feedback that guides next steps, rather than simply pointing out or penalizing students for errors. Many education apps now provide fairly surface-level feedback and give limited options for teachers to provide substantive guidance while also encouraging students to take risks, the authors note. 

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