The 60-Second Secret to Successful Math Practice

Part five of a seven-part series by Robert Sun.

Earlier in our series on the seven essential elements to look for in a digital practice program, we talked about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes how important clear, “moment-to-moment” goals are to instilling what he refers to as “flow,” an ideal state in which learners lose all track of time in their enjoyment of an activity.

A short task, one in which you have an objective as well as immediate feedback on whether or not the objective is achieved, provides that moment-to-moment clarity. When both are present, a state is created in which learners reach out for the next challenge, and the next. A positive feedback loop has begun.

Kids thrive when they are engaged in a series of short-term tasks where success is within their reach. Video game designers know this—and it’s a fundamental part of any well-designed learning game.

So far in this series of articles we’ve covered five attributes common to all first-rate digital learning games: comprehensive content; multiple points of entry; engagement that generates attention and persistence; a seamless gradient of challenges; and an environment that gives students a sense of control. The sixth key element is a short cycle of play. Each portion of this element—“short,” “cycle,” and “play”—is important. When all three attributes are present, remarkable things can happen.

Our research shows that for young learners, the first component—short duration—is optimized at about 60 seconds. A task set at that length allows the child to perceive completion even before she or he begins. When that 60 seconds is over, the child has to make the decision to push the “Start” button again and continue the journey. That repeated process of, “I’m making the decision that I want to do this again,” reinforces the buy-in. It also produces the second condition, cyclical activity, that fosters extended learning.

Play, the third component, is present when students perceive the environment to be non-threatening. Once the pressure to perform is removed and rewards are placed just over the horizon, students can be themselves, engaging the problem at hand with a sense of discovery and fun.

One of the best students to ever play First In Math was autistic. Despite having an extremely short attention span, he became the number one player in the nation. When he sat down to play the game, he would play for hours. His mother attributed his unique passion for First In Math to the fact that, at any point, he knew in 60 seconds or less he could get up and walk away. No one was telling him, “You’ve got to do this, and it’s going to take you ten to fifteen minutes.” Because of the short cycle of play, he made the decision to play on, again and again. That repeated re-engagement was what got him to take ownership of his activity.

Beyond its ability to match students’ dwindling attention spans, there’s a second benefit to offering a short cycle of play—one that perfectly matches the dynamic of a typical school day. Many classrooms have two, three or even more computers that sit largely unused, simply because the learning programs they house take ten to fifteen minutes to get through. Kids aren’t provided with those chunks of time.

Yet classes frequently have very short periods of dead time. When a child finishes a task early, for example, he has nothing to do. Often the result is boredom and disruption. If that child can go to an activity with a short cycle of play—something where, after 60 seconds, he can achieve something and know that he achieved something—that dead time can become meaningful (not to mention that the school has maximized its technology investment.)

A short cycle of play has proven to be one of the most important of all the elements. It syncs with the way today’s student consumes information and executes tasks. Most of all, it gives the moment-to-moment feedback and reward children so desperately crave. In the next article in our series we’ll examine the seventh and final element—the freedom to make mistakes.

Read the full series on the essentials of math instruction by Robert Sun:

Part One | Deep Practice: The Vital Edge in Math Achievement

Part Two | Optimal Flow: The Key to Sustained Practice

Part Three | Student Engagement: It’s Not Just for the Classroom

Part Four | Owning Practice: Two Ways for Students to Feel Invested

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.