Over recent years, a range of sites offering pupils the opportunity for practice of Maths skills have been developed. These range from sites focused on mental maths to those containing a full range of curriculum assignments to cover the objectives for each year group.
This article discusses why I think these services have had little impact and what could be done.
Analysising of the usage of these services, teachers tend to notice two traits.
- The software is used more by pupils in a class where the teacher encourages it regularly.
This is clear as classes, even in the same year group, can have a wide range of usage activity. Questioning the teachers, it often becomes clear that one reminds pupils and gives it as “an assignment” whereas the other doesn’t.
- The software is used more regularly for longer periods by the higher achieving pupils.
Pupils who perform well in internal assessments tend to enjoy Maths and use the software more often, whether in high or low usage classrooms. This is clear from the data of questions attempted. The software is generally not encouraging those who need to use it most.
So here are two challenges for software companies.
- How should they encourage teachers to promote usage in the class?
- How should they encourage use by the lower achieving pupils?
Promoting Class Usage
Once classes are setup, using these services should be a breeze is the thought – pupils login, teachers lookup results, progress is measured. However, teachers are busy people and there are lot of demands on their time. Remembering to login and check results inevitably gets pushed to the side by staff meetings, duties, marking, preparation, displays, ordering and now a mountain of emails. And as we noted before, if the teacher doesn’t promote its usage, then the class don’t use it.
So how can software companies help?
Many of these subscription services use the teacher’s email address for login and teacher password reset. After that, they tend not to use the teacher email address at all. If they do, it tends to be to send information about updates or tips.
My suggestion is that these services should consider sending two weekly teacher alerts.
Once a week – send an alert informing the teacher who really needs support to practice.
There should be a function in the software where the timing of this alert is set up for each teacher. This allows them to set it for a time each week when the software is being used. It will act as both a reminder to the teacher to promote usage, and a prompt to chase particular individuals.
Once a week – send an alert to the teacher with information which can be celebrated.
Again this should be a timely email, e.g on the day of any celebration assembly. It should point out… increased usage, continuous usage (streaks), excellent progress, new levels reached – rather than simple attainment chart.
Many schools have a house or colours points system, and it would also be possible to build this into the database. This would allow classes and schools to encourage usage and reward with house/team points in the real world. I have used this with one subscription service, where those reaching a particular level of mastery for an assignment were rewarded with a house point.
School Leaders alerts – to ensure teachers are using it.
So Maths leads would also benefit from email alerts. But these should be tailored to supporting teachers using the software. Whereas a teacher alert might point out pupils who haven’t used it this week, the school leader (math lead) alert would point out class usage and individual pupils who haven’t used it in the past 2 weeks. This will allow for conversations with the teacher about potiential issues.
Encouraging Infrequent Users
Clearly, identifying and reminding teachers to prompt pupils will go some way to improving the situation. However, it does appear that for pupils with low attainment, there are real issues with regular practice. Some of the factors appear to be confidence, mindset and lack of support.
A pupil who already feels less capable, is unlikely to turn to something which constantly reminds them they are wrong, or which measures them against a benchmark. Software which gives them a percentage at the end, or a mark out 20, can just reinforce a pupils lack of ability and do nothing to raise confidence. In contrast, software which continually supplies new sets of questions, measuring in the background, with the pupil only struggling occasionally with a problem, seems more likely to encourage usage. It’s estimated that in order to read independently, a child should already understand 95% of the vocabulary – which suggests that to feel confident a child should be getting 19/20 questions correct. Imagine how much this would improve confidence.
Changing the Mindset
Many of the subscriptions which offer whole curriculum activities allow the pupil to retake the same assignment. It is interesting to note though that pupils who receive low scores, very rarely repeat the activity, even though this is what they need – more practice of this type of question. Remember a child is using this software often by themselves. Even at home, they may not wish to admit to getting 6 out of 10. So the fault seems to be with an app that allows the pupil, working by themselves, to form the mindset that there is a level to achieve, and they are a long way from it. Software which starts from a low base, and adapts questions by introducing only one or two tricky ones in a set of 10, is likely to give the pupil the idea that they can achieve. There are a number of these subscriptions appearing now which give sets of questions and adapt them to the user’s attainment.
Support whilst alone
Many software subscriptions nowadays have built in support. This often ranges from a link to an external website, a text and image explanation to a video example. I have had software sold to me on the basis that there is a help function if the child doesn’t understand. But just because there is this support in place, does not mean it is going to work. If the child doesn’t understand the concept, these explanations may do little to help, especially as they can take effort. Only the video example might make the child feel there is “someone” there for them and that they are being supported.
One subscription service I have come across takes a different approach when a child doesn’t understand, is stuck or repeatedly gets it wrong. That is, to allow the pupil to “ask an adult” and get on with a new question they can access.
The feature alerts the teacher, or parent, that there is a question the child needs help with. Next time the teacher has a moment, they can take the child aside, bring up the question and work through together how to approach it. For the pupil, it means that they can ignore the “too difficult” question for now and move on, allowing them to continue achieving. The effect is that the child doesn’t fail or remain stuck, but continues to achieve for a longer period.
At a later date, the teacher can support their understanding and the question is answered. The pupil now feels supported, and doesn’t attach failure to using the software.
Add these “Ask an adult” questions to their teacher’s email alert and you have a powerful system. Add the “Ask an adult” questions not answered within 2 weeks to the Subject Leader’s email alert, means that the system becomes truly functional.
And why would any school consider moving to a different package…?