Bad Teaching for Preschoolers? There Are Lots of Apps for That

By Benjamin Herold — August 10, 2018 3 min read
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Although educational apps for preschoolers abound, many don’t include sound teaching strategies.

That’s the takeaway from a new study published today in the academic journal Learning, Media and Technology.

“From our review of a small portion of this market, it does not appear that popular literacy and math apps for preschoolers are employing many of the techniques that we know help young children learn,” wrote Melissa N. Callaghan and Stephanie M. Reich, education researchers at the University of California, Irvine.

Among the biggest problems the researchers identified: poor feedback, ineffective guidance and modeling, and lack of responsiveness to children’s individual skill levels.

The study, titled “Are educational preschool apps designed to teach? An analysis of the app market” examined a total of 171 mobile applications. The researchers selected the top 10 free and top 10 paid apps from the Apple and Android app stores over three-month periods in the summer of 2016 (math) and spring of 2017 (literacy). All of the apps were categorized in the stores as “educational,” were tailored to children under age 5, described math and literacy learning outcomes, and assessed student responses to see if they were correct.

The researchers didn’t observe children actually using the apps. Instead, they reviewed the tools themselves, looking for characteristics such as the specific math and literacy skills being targeted, the ways in which instructions and guidance were delivered, and the type of feedback the apps provided to children.

Among their key findings:

  • One in 5 of the apps reviewed by the researchers didn’t provide instructions at all. Another 33 percent provided only “moderate” directions. Just 14 percent provided visual cues to demonstrate the instructions.
  • Despite toddlers’ short attention spans, just 15 percent of the apps reviewed repeated instructions after a pause in game play. Just 6 percent rephrased the instructions in a different way.
  • “Very few” apps modeled for children how to complete tasks; just 4 percent, for example, used characters to model how to get correct answers, a strategy the researchers thought could be particularly effective with young children.
  • In-game rewards for correct answers tended to be bells and whistles, such as positive tones or sprinkling confetti, that weren’t directly to tied to deepening student learning. Less than 2 percent used more educational strategies, such as “leveling up” of characters to give them new abilities to improve game play.
  • More than two-thirds of the apps reviewed did not reduce the difficulty of the tasks presented to children who struggled to answer questions, missing an opportunity to keep some students engaged.

Perhaps most significantly, while positive feedback for correct answers was common, “scaffolded” feedback that might help children understand why they got an answer right or wrong was relatively rare. For example, the researchers wrote, an app was far more likely to say something like “No, try again” than “No, that is not a circle. It doesn’t have four corners, like a square. Tap on the square.”

Such patterns are disconcerting, the researchers wrote, given what we know about how young children process information; the limitations in their attention spans, working memory, and visual processing; and the value of clear instructions and feedback for helping them learn.

The patterns are probably not surprising, however. Previous studies have found that 89 percent of educational apps for young children rely on “drill-and-practice” instruction and that most math apps “either provided no feedback or required users to play the same task until they got it correct.”

On a more positive note, Callaghan and Reich did find that 8 in 10 of the apps in their study presented clear learning goals for children. In math, the most common were counting and number recognition. In literacy, the most common were letter recognition and understanding the sounds letters make.

And the researchers also commended the apps for relying primarily on verbal, rather than text, prompts and for keeping touchscreen interactions simple, in order to align with young children’s still-developing fine-motor skills.

Callaghan and Reich’s advice for the field?

“App developers should consider how certain designs for prompting, feedback, leveling, and rewards may best support young preschool learners,” the researchers wrote.

In addition, they said, parents, caregivers, and educators should look for such features when selecting apps for their children.

Photo: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.