How to Pick Learning Software

Introduction

When you shop for educational software, you are probably considering these factors:
  • Is it fun enough so that my child will actually use it?
  • Will my child learn a lot?

There is often a third factor, which (inconveniently) is this question:
  • Will it be educationally effective with no effort at all from me? In other words, is this the babysitter I've always wanted?

A Sad Truth

In our opinion, the large majority of educational software that is sold in the United States are computer games that are heavy on entertainment and light on actual educational benefit. They absolutely are babysitters that keep your children engaged, but educationally, they are extremely inefficient in light of the time invested.

Here's an example of extremely inefficient educational software:

You see lush, beautiful graphics in the background. Perhaps you are in a jungle, and a monkey is hanging out of a tree. A single math problem appears prominently in the middle of the screen with 5 multiple choice answers. You click your answer...there is a momentary delay to build up suspense. "Correct!" it says, and the monkey does a little dance.
What percentage of the time spent was devoted to watching pretty animations or waiting for artificial delays? In stereotypical educational software, students are spending more time being entertained than they are spending concentrating on actual math. This is what we call Edutainment. First and foremost, it is entertaining, and it happens to have an educational aspect. However, the quality of that educational aspect is often questionable at best.

If your goal is to buy time for yourself, go ahead and buy these games for your kids. But if you want your children to systematically improve in mathematics, your involvement is necessary. We're not talking a ton of involvement, but it must be consistent involvement.

What does effective educational software look like?

Effective educational software tends to have the following components:
  • An assessment to diagnose your student's weaknesses
  • A high density of math problems for the time invested
  • Instant solution explanations when your student gets a wrong answer
  • Progress tracking tools that make it easy to see both when your student is doing well and when your student is struggling.
  • A reward system that fosters intrinsic motivation.

Well, isn't that going to be boring? Well, the answer to that question is based on whether or not the reward system succeeds in fostering intrinsic motivation.

intrinsic motivation: Motivation that comes from inside rather than from external rewards.
A software product's ability to foster intrinsic motivation is really the key to it's long term success. It is a subtle art and few products manage to pull it off. In the case of math software, if the student legitimately feels that he is quickly getting better at math as a result of using the software, the student will likely stay motivated. Bells and whistles that make the product pretty are actually far less important to the student when intrinsic motivation is achieved.

The Parent's Role

Your primary role as the parent is to view the progress reports generated by the software and discuss the progress with your children. You should set goals, encourage your kids, and possibly provide your own incentives based on success. However, do not provide incentives based on time spent, because that can lead to some very unproductive time wastage.

If your children see that you are involved in discussing their progress, they will be extra excited every time they master a new skill. This positive feedback loop makes the software important to them.

If we are to generalize, if the parent (or teacher) does not get involved, the student will eventually lose interest and the software will appear to have failed.

OK, what about MathScore?

Just as we've suggested, MathScore will most likely work wonders with your children if you regularly discuss the progress reports (we call these Activity Summaries) with your children on a regular basis. Some kids love MathScore enough even if the parents (or teachers) do not get involved, but that's the exception, not the rule. If your child uses MathScore at least one our per week, ideally in chunks of 30 minutes or more, our statistics suggest that your child will learn a ton.

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