From Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Michnick Golinkoff, Gray, Robb and Kaufman. Putting Education into Education Apps: Lessons from the Science of Learning, online at
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2015, Vol. 16(1) 3–34
The study of engagement often centers on the idea of student engagement in the classroom. In a review of the literature, Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris (2004) suggested three kinds of engagement: behavioral engagement (i.e., rule-following, effort, persistence, participation in programs), emotional engagement (i.e., affective reactions), and cognitive engagement (i.e., investment in learning, flexibility in problem solving). Each type of engagement is critical for learning because they all foster staying on task. The Science of Learning has highlighted the importance of focused engagement in learning in early childhood. Engagement and distraction have also been extensively studied in the context of executive functions—an umbrella term that covers flexibility in thinking, problem solving, inhibition of behavior, and attention (see Zelazo, Muller, Frye, & Marcovitch, 2003, for a review).
The educational quality of apps depends on their ability to support children’s engagement with the learning process. This means avoiding the myriad distractions potentially available on-screen and allowing for sustained engagement sufficient to meet the learning goals. Extraneous animations, sound effects, and tangential games might be appealing to a child when activated but not add to the child’s understanding of the primary content because they disrupt the coherence of the learning experience and the child’s engagement. We next examine three elements of app design that
can afford this kind of deep engagement in learning. Notably, evidence for the effectiveness of many of these design characteristics has been found in work done more generally on multimedia learning (Mayer, 2014a). Contingent interactions. When contingent interactions occur between children and their caregivers, as in video chats (Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2014), even 24- to 30-month-olds can learn new words that they cannot learn when presented noncontingently by a person on television. The contingent interactions that apps afford are perhaps the most basic element of engagement with a touch screen. When each touch or swipe is met with an immediate response, children feel in control, maintain their focus, and continue the interaction. This sort of responsiveness is a core element of userinterface design in the field of human-computer interaction (Nielsen, 1993/2014). It is also a growing subject of investigation among researchers interested in educational media (Lauricella, Pempek, Barr, & Calvert, 2010). For example, experimental manipulations that required children to use a computer to move the story of Dora the Explorer forward at preselected points were linked to children’s increased understanding of story content (Calvert, Strong, Jacobs, & Conger, 2007). Extrinsic motivation and feedback. Engagement— and its potential to foster learning—is deepened when an app responds to children’s activities with meaningful feedback. Apps with an explicit question-answer format typically provide differential responses to children’s answers. These responses may include labels of “correct” or “incorrect,” motivational messages (e.g., “Great work!”
and “Try again”), parasocial displays (e.g., of a crowd cheering or an animated monkey jumping with joy), points or badges, and access to additional meaningful content that progresses the game. By carefully structuring the feedback as well as allowing progressive access to content (e.g., presenting more advanced content through a series of game levels or adaptively, based on user profiles), apps can focus children’s attention on the app experience and extend engagement for a long time. Children’s engagement in this structured system of learning and feedback is typically driven by extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Players want to achieve external rewards and avoid the opposite—typically, the absence of rewards. However, extrinsic reinforcements are not limited to question-answer formats but may also be embedded in a more naturalistic context. For example, on-screen environments that let children search for hidden objects may provide a kind of hide-and-seek game in which discovering objects is its own reward. Importantly, praise by an adult or by an app can have differential effects depending on what is praised. A significant body of research conducted by Dweck and colleagues (Dweck, 1999, 2006; Gunderson et al., 2013) has shown that praising children’s intelligence leads them to avoid the inevitable risks of learning for fear of appearing stupid and losing face. Alternatively, praising children for their efforts and hard work helps them understand that learning is not often instantaneous and motivates them to persevere through the difficulties they may encounter and, ultimately, succeed more often. This approach helps children develop a growth mind-set in which they feel a sense of control over their own capacity to think and learn. With this research in mind, the praise offered through apps should be mindful of praising children for their effort rather than for their intelligence. The former can cultivate a growth mind-set, motivating children to tackle and stay engaged in difficult tasks.