Computer games to improve children’s maths and science achievement

An independent evaluation of Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts has found evidence of a positive impact in maths and science outcomes for pupils in Key Stage 2.

The Learning Counterintuitive Concepts project, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and Wellcome, aimed to improve science and maths achievement for Year 3 (7–8 year olds) and Year 5 (9–10 year olds) using an intervention called Stop and Think. When learning new concepts in science and maths, pupils must be able to inhibit prior contradictory knowledge and misconceptions to acquire new knowledge successfully. Stop and Think is a computer-assisted learning activity that aims to improve a learner’s ability to adapt to counterintuitive concepts by training them to inhibit their initial response, and instead, give a slower and more reflective answer.

The randomised controlled trial involved 6,672 children from 89 schools across England. The intervention was delivered to the whole class and consisted of 30 sessions delivered for a maximum of 15 minutes, three times a week, for 10 weeks at the start of maths or science lessons.

The results suggest that pupils who participated in Stop and Think made more progress in science and maths on average, compared to children in the business-as-usual control group.  The combined effect size across the two year groups for maths was +0.09 and +0.12 for science.

To check whether this impact was due to the Stop and Think game specifically, or was a result of the extra pupil engagement and motivation arising from having a fun computer-based activity at the start of lessons more generally, schools were offered an alternative computer-based programme that did not include any content from Stop and Think. Intervention-group pupils also made more progress than pupils in this “active” control group. The combined effect sizes for maths and science were +0.13 and +0.15 respectively.

Source: Stop and Think: Learning counterintuitive concepts. Evaluation report (September 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

Improving the maths and reading skills of children in foster care

A study published in Oxford Review of Education evaluates the effects of TutorBright tutoring on the reading and maths skills of children in family foster care. TutorBright uses one-to-one, at-home tutoring with detailed instructor’s manuals and customised pupil workbooks. Children receive two one-hour tutoring sessions per week, on designated days of the week, for up to 50 hours of tutoring. Children in the waiting list control group were asked to continue with their schooling as usual and not seek additional tutoring or academic support during the school year, and were then offered the tutoring intervention at the end of the school year. TutorBright tutors all had experience with teaching or mentoring, and an undergraduate or master’s degree (completed or in progress).

For the randomised controlled trial, conducted by Andrea J Hickey and Robert J Flynn, child welfare workers nominated foster care children in Ontario, Canada, who met the following criteria: enrolled in grades 1–11 (Years 2–12), fluent in English, currently living in a foster-family setting, and judged likely to remain in care for the duration of the study. Thirty-four children were randomly assigned to tutoring, and 36 to a waiting-list control condition.

The results suggest that the tutored children made greater gains than those in the control group in reading fluency (effect size = +0.16), reading comprehension (ES = +0.34) and maths calculation (ES = +0.39).

Source: Effects of the TutorBright tutoring programme on the reading and mathematics skills of children in foster care: a randomised controlled trial (July 2019), Oxford Review of Education, 45:4

Student allocation to maths sets not always based on previous achievement

Research into grouping by achievement, by academics from Queen’s University Belfast and University College London, has found that nearly a third of students in England were allocated to higher or lower maths sets than their previous test performance implied.

The study, published in the British Educational Research Journal, analysed data from 9,301 Year 7 students at 46 secondary schools in England. The researchers compared which maths set the students would have been put in – based on Key Stage 2 maths test scores – with the sets they were actually placed in. Overall, they found that 31.1% of students were misallocated – placed in sets that were either higher or lower than their results at the end of primary school would have indicated.

Boys were slightly more likely to be misallocated to higher sets in maths (16.7%) than lower sets (13.0%), whereas girls were more likely to be misallocated to lower sets (17.9%) than higher sets (14.7%). Other findings showed that:

  • Black students were 2.4 times more likely than white students to be misallocated to a lower maths set.
  • Asian students were 1.7 times more likely than white students to be misallocated to a lower maths set.
  • Female students were 1.53 times more likely than males to be misallocated to a lower maths set.
  • White students were 2.09 times more likely than black students to be misallocated to a higher maths set.
  • White students were 1.72 times more likely than Asian students to be misallocated to a higher maths set.
  • Male students were 1.32 times more likely than females to be misallocated to a higher maths set.

Source: The misallocation of students to academic sets in maths: A study of secondary schools in England (June 2019) British Educational Research Journal

Maths learning app offers some promising results

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published the independent evaluation report of a trial of a maths-based learning app.

The “onebillion” programme consists of two maths learning apps, Maths 3–5 and Maths 4–6, that are designed to reinforce basic mathematical skills learned in the classroom. The apps are aimed at pupils aged 3–5 and 4–6 respectively and consist of mathematical activities organised around different topics such as counting, shape and measures. The trial, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, tested the impact of the apps on pupils in Year 2 who had been identified by their teachers as being in the bottom half of their class in maths at the start of the school year.

One hundred and thirteen schools from across England took part in the randomised controlled trial. Schools in the intervention group used the apps for half an hour, four days per week, for 12 weeks, in addition to regular maths lessons. All children started with the Maths 3–5 app and progressed to the Maths 4–6 app, once they had completed Maths 3–5. The children’s use of the apps was monitored by teaching assistants who were trained by a team from the University of Nottingham. Pupil achievement in maths was measured using the Progress Test in Maths 6.

Pupils who received the programme made significant additional progress in maths (effect size = +0.24) compared to the control group. However, the trial also suggested that there may have been a negative impact (effect size = -0.10) on pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) compared to those in the control group, though this finding was non-significant. The report advises that teachers or school leaders using onebillion should carefully monitor the impact on FSM pupils if implementing the approach.

Source: Onebillion: Evaluation report (July 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

AmeriCorps volunteers and pupil maths achievement

AmeriCorps is a US organisation that trains volunteers to serve the community in various civically-minded ways. A recent evaluation examined the effects on pupils’ maths achievement of training AmeriCorps volunteers to teach maths strategies to struggling maths pupils in grades 4–8 (Years 5–9). The volunteers used scripted protocols to teach three maths strategies to struggling pupils. Each strategy was studied in prior research and shown to have positive effects on achievement: concrete-representational-abstract, which uses concrete objects to teach concepts; cover-copy-compare, which teaches steps for computation and provides practice; and cognitive-strategy instruction, which teaches pupils to use procedures and reasoning to solve word problems.

AmeriCorps volunteers had to agree to a year-long, full-time commitment and received four days of training before starting the intervention, with additional training one and two months after. Each school received at least one volunteer from AmeriCorps, who was mentored by one school-staff member who was fully trained in the programme.

Subjects were 489 pupils in 150 Minnesota schools who were randomly assigned to either receive the intervention at the start of the school year (n=310), or to a control group who would receive the intervention a few months later (n=179). All pupils had scored below proficient in the prior year’s state maths assessment. During the intervention, pupil pairs with similar maths scores were to receive maths support for 90 minutes a week for a term. Post-tests using STAR Math were analysed two ways: the intent-to-treat analysis included all pupils who received the intervention, and showed significant positive effects as compared to the control group (effect size = +0.17); and the optimal dosage analysis that included pupils who received the targeted 12 weeks of intervention for at least an hour a week. Effect sizes for the experimental group increased to +0.24 when pupils were given the optimal dosage.

Source: Evaluation of a math intervention program implemented with community support (May 2019), Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2019.1571653

A systematic review of classroom-based mathematical interventions

The Nuffield Foundation has published a systematic review by researchers at Ulster University that analyses the outcomes of classroom-based mathematical interventions.

The systematic review included studies that assessed the outcomes of interventions aimed at improving maths achievement in primary school children. Forty-five randomised controlled trials were included along with thirty-five quasi-experimental studies. The studies were published between 2000 and 2017, and were mostly conducted in the US and Europe.

The results of the review suggest that there are effective strategies teachers can use to help with learning maths and being fluent with mathematical facts. It also found there are many different ways teachers can support children to have a wide bank of strategies to complete mathematical problems, and for children to know when is best to apply them. Technology in the classroom can also be helpful as long as these tools have been developed with a clear understanding of how children learn. 

The report concludes that the evidence base on mathematical interventions is weak, and recommends that researchers should test how effective mathematical interventions are in order to help teachers support children’s learning. 

Source: Interventions to improve mathematical achievement in primary school-aged children. A systematic review (June 2019), Nuffield Foundation