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Research shows how apps enhance learning in primary mathematics

Issue: Volume 97, Number 16

Posted: 02:34pm, 10 Sep 2018
Reference #: 1H9kYN

A research project in primary schools shows how teachers can use apps to enhance student learning in mathematics. The findings are encouraging both for teachers already using apps as part of their mathematics teaching and those who have yet to experiment with them.

Students working together using Brainpop.

Students working together using Brainpop.

A research project has highlighted the potential advantages for both teachers and students of strengthening digital environments in classrooms. As teachers experiment with apps in their teaching, they progress along the TPACK continuum (see sidebar), to the point that they consciously encourage students to explore and experiment with technology. Students created dynamic presentations of their mathematical processes, strategies, and solutions using apps that enable video and audio recording.

The key findings emphasise quality teacher practice as central to the success of apps as a teaching tool. They also show how carefully chosen apps can enable social interaction, personalisation, differentiation of the learning, and engagement with mathematical ideas.

This article draws on the project report and includes reflections from the project leader,
Dr Nigel Calder, and two of the teacher-partners: Rebekah Whyte and Monique Storey.

Students’ learning needs should drive app choices

The research team identified two main types of app, consumable and creative. Consumable apps prompt students to practise facts and skills and reinforce what they know. Creative apps are open-ended and may not be specifically about maths, but require the students to bring their mathematical thinking to the app.

The project identified the most important decisions teachers make in selecting apps.

Monique, herself an app designer, says her starting point is always the students’ learning needs. “A carefully selected app that is being used well will promote engagement, show results, and promote higher-order thinking.”

Apps can support students to discuss their mathematical thinking

Within the project, teachers used apps that supported interaction and sharing. Students worked in groups, recording their thinking and sharing audio and video to get feedback.

Nigel observed students working in groups to solve mathematics problems. Even where they had their own devices, three or four of them would be around one screen. “They would video themselves explaining their thinking around the problem. They could take photos and incorporate that into what they were talking around. It was very collaborative,” he says.

Most students in the study used apps on iPads. Monique says they showed one another how to do things in a way they would not do in mathematics exercise books.

“It is easy for one child to show another how to do something on a screen, then it can be built on or deleted, and the child carries on with their new information. They wouldn’t draw an explanation in someone else’s book, but they will do it on a screen.”

Recording themselves gave students the opportunity to develop and demonstrate their mathematical thinking. It was not enough to get an answer, they had to explain the thinking that got them there. And that thinking was shared with an audience of classmates, rather than the teacher as an audience of one.

Monique sees that the wider audience can be an advantage. “The audience – their classmates – was listening, giving feedback, and agreeing or disagreeing, all of which is fostering mathematical thinking.”

Rebekah says reviewing the recordings helped her understand student reasoning and identify when mathematical thinking had gone awry. She gave the example of a student who had got the right answer by luck. “I wouldn’t have picked it up unless I listened to her recording of her reasoning.”

Apps provide options

Apps offer many ways for the students to engage with the content, often combining sound, visuals, and invitations to respond. “They input data and see graphs change, boom, so it’s dynamic and moving seamlessly between different representations enhances the understanding,” says Nigel.

Rebekah says that the opportunity to personalise their mathematics learning made activities more meaningful and real for the students. A simple search to find images that matched the problem they were solving increased student engagement.

A good teacher is more important than a good app

While a high-quality app that is well matched to the students’ learning needs is optimum, the project showed that the quality of the teaching is more important.

“With a so-called average app, a good teacher can still make that work. They know their students and they know the content – the maths – and they know the pedagogy. The optimum is a well-designed app coupled with appropriate pedagogy. That combination can be really effective for mathematics learning,” says Nigel.

Monique says that the culture the teacher creates in the classroom is key to the success of apps as learning tools for mathematics.

“They work best when there is a culture of collaboration and challenge.” 


The research project was funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI), which supports research partnerships between researchers and practitioners.

Dr Nigel Calder from the University of Waikato headed the project, assisted by Dr Carol Murphy and 12 teacher-partners from Years 1 to 6 at two Bay of Plenty primary schools, Tahatai Coast School and Te Akau ki Papamoa.

The research questions were underpinned by the technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge (TPACK) model. The TPACK model aligns teacher content knowledge with the knowledge they need to incorporate technology into their teaching. The first level is when teachers occasionally recognise and align the capabilities of technology to content-specific topics, while the fifth level is where teachers advance teaching by integrating technology with content teaching.

The full report is available on the TLRI website(external link)


Three most important decisions in selecting apps

Creative apps

Consumable apps

Does the app allow for clarifying/building understanding?

Does it focus on the mathematics?

Does the app develop critical thinking and
problem solving?

Does it meet the learning outcomes and next 
steps in learning?

Does the app allow learners to see mathematics
in different ways?

Does it make mathematics attractive and 
motivate perseverance?

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

The Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero is produced by NZME for the Ministry of Education for teachers, leaders, and other education professionals working in New Zealand.

Posted: 02:09pm, 10 September 2018

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