Student Engagement: It’s Not Just for the Classroom

A Seven-Part Series | Part Three

by Robert Sun

Are you wondering if your school’s web-based math practice program is truly engaging? If students are only using it during the school day—if they go home and no longer want to touch it—it’s not. Without engagement, students won’t take ownership and put in the extra time that is essential to master concepts and make real progress in math.

For any online learning platform to be truly effective, it must be captivating enough so children want to engage outside of school. Too many digital learning applications—games included—fail this fundamental requirement.

In this series detailing the seven essential elements to look for in a digital practice program, we’ve so far discussed the importance of comprehensive content and multiple points of entry. The third aspect is “Engagement.” How does a program captivate learners so much that they want to use it even when there’s no adult standing over their shoulder?

Engaging and motivating students are the greatest challenges that schools face today. To solve this challenge, one only needs to look at how people spend their time and what they attend to.

It’s safe to say that digital games are one of the most important pastimes in people’s lives. Around the world, humans spend more than three billion hours playing video games each week. In America, the average youngster devotes roughly 10,000 hours to playing video games before the age of 21. Can schools convince students to incorporate learning-based games into their lives, and actually give such games priority?

Digital platforms that harness the engaging power of video games and focus on a specific academic skill are presently being used by millions of students. Research into our First in Math® online platform shows that 47% of all participation occurs outside of school—demonstrating that it is possible to engage kids in learning, even when they’re not in the classroom.

What I’ve found, during 20 years of working with children learning mathematics, is the fastest way to engage a child is to give them something they can do. When you do that, you’ve got their attention. The process has begun.

However, when activities become too easy, kids quickly get bored. The key is to not only give them something they know they can do, but ease them into the next gradient of challenge. This progressive escalation of rigor insures that the student is continuously operating at the edge of their abilities—where active learning occurs.

A current trend in digital learning programs is the lure of using artificial intelligence; algorithms designed to adapt to each player and place that learner on a guided path. At the beginning, the player is asked to complete a series of initial tests that expose the child’s weaknesses, after which the program goes about “correcting” them. This strategy looks good on paper—where the algorithm is based on a linear progression of skills as presented in a scope and sequence.

Unfortunately, there is great diversity in how children learn, and most do so in a non-linear fashion. If a student remains stuck after several iterations of the AI intervention, he or she quickly runs out of options and begins to disengage. In addition, when a student is anxious about math, the last thing you want is to expose weaknesses and immediately throw them back in their face.

A more successful strategy is to allow the student to make choices and build skills that generate confidence. Children are eager to improve if they feel success is within their grasp. As a Japanese educator once said, “If you think you have a chance to catch the bus, then you will make the effort to run for it.” Any digital practice program worth using has to be viewed in the child’s eyes as something he or she can do. It also has to be comprehensive, fascinating, easily approachable, adaptive and relevant, with outcomes that the child realizes are worthwhile and satisfying.

Yet there’s even more to student engagement. The final element is the ability to trigger an attitude of persistence within students. Persistence increases when a challenge is just at the outer edge of one’s abilities. In a learning or practice environment, each challenge must be balanced against the student’s developing skills.

Without balance, there are two likely outcomes: anxiety or boredom, either of which will likely send the student off to other distractions. When a practice program is balanced, a student will persist even through repeated failures. With each new challenge the child will persevere and keep acquiring skills, step-by-step.

When creating an engaging digital learning platform, figuring out granular learning stages isn’t easy. Presented concepts must be easily grasped, so children can intuitively perceive which stage matches their current level of knowledge. Identifying students’ knowledge gaps and bridging them with meaningful challenges will be the next topic in this series.

Photo by Robert Lysik.

Read the full series

Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.