How Can Schools Get Kids to Spend More Time on Academic Skills?

According to a new study, Tennessee students who “consistently” used the Zearn math platform made big gains in math. The same is true for regular users of programs like ST Math or Khan Academy.

But notice the catch here? They all depend on students habitually engaging with the programs on some sort of ongoing basis.

High-quality technology programs offer schools a cost-efficient way to provide students with a tailored form of deliberate practice. And more deliberate practice = better results.

As a parent who’s tried all three of these math programs, I can say that they all try to be engaging. They’re colorful and interactive, and they all have various “gamification” components to make learning math more fun.

But there’s only so much an app can do to keep someone’s attention before it becomes more like a game than a learning tool. And anyone who’s tried to keep their Duolingo daily streak going, or who struggles to get to the gym regularly, will intuitively understand that it’s hard to build and sustain new habits, even if we know those things will be good for us. Ultimately, it requires hard work to get better at something.

Zearn, for instance, has made a variety of motivational tools freely available on its website. But what else can schools do to nudge more kids to get more reps, whether that’s in math or any other subject? There are a range of potential approaches, from requirements and prizes to embedding the programs into daily instructional time:

  • Recognition: This is the lightest-touch approach. What if educators singled out the kids who are working the hardest to build their skills? It would cost little to no money to read kids’ names out over the intercom, make up some stickers, or print out some certificates, but these types of recognition efforts it would help educators signal that they valued hard work and practice.
  • Prizes: One step up would be to actually give kids something of value to thank them for their hard work. Do kids who complete 20 minutes of math lessons per day get their name into a drawing for a free Nintendo Switch Lite, a gift certificate, or tickets to a local sporting event?
  • Partnerships: Rather than the school putting up the prizes, could they find some local vendors who might be willing to put their names on prizes for kids who are working hard? As a child of the 1990s, I have fond memories of reading a lot of books in order to win free personal pan pizzas courtesy of the Pizza Hut BookIt
  • Homework: There’s been a movement in recent years to restrict the amount of homework that students are asked to do. And there is an active debate over whether homework actually helps boost learning, but the evidence suggests that it helps students when it does not impose a huge burden, it tailored to student abilities, and provides students with clear feedback on progress. Those can all be accomplished with the technology-based math apps or carefully tweaked challenges tied to a student’s grade level.
  • School day: This is the most intrusive option, but are there any pockets of school time that could be repurposed for time on task? In this instance, the apps could act like a dedicated tutor for students and offer personalized instruction and feedback on their work. For example, my daughter’s 6th grade teacher asks her to complete a certain number of math lessons per week on ST Math and Khan Academy, plus reading comprehension tasks on a program called Newsela. Officially this is in a “no homework” school, but this teacher sets (non-binding) short- and long-term goals, tracks each student’s progress, and shares updates with the kids and parents.

There is also some evidence that financial incentives can work to motivate students. As I wrote in 2022, the research on incentives suggests that they should focus on shorter-term inputs like effort and behavior rather than longer-term outcomes like test scores.

Teachers, schools, or districts could tweak these ideas in a variety of ways. They could reward individual students, a full class, or an entire school. Leaders could also choose to focus on a particular subject of need, like math, or they could aim broadly and count pretty much any type of skill-building, such as practicing violin, learning to code, or reading for 20 minutes every night.

For any school or district leader, the first step is to narrow down the list of activities and behaviors they want to encourage in students. Many districts have already taken that step by adopting curricula or purchasing specific learning technology platforms. But the second step—which is equally critical but missing in too many places right now—is to nudge, encourage, or reward students to put in more time on task.

About Chad Aldeman



Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

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