One of the nation’s first large-scale studies examining the use of computers in schools has found that, when used selectively by trained teachers, computers improve the math performance of students. But when used ineffectively–as in repetitive “drill and kill” practice–computers actually inhibit students’ math achievement.

The study, released Sept. 29, was conducted by a researcher at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, N.J., and sponsored by the Milken Exchange on Education Technology and Education Week. It offers solid evidence of what works and what doesn’t when computers are used in classrooms.

Students who spent the most time at a computer in school actually scored lower than their peers on a national math test, the study found. Students who used “drill and practice” software also scored lower. But students who used computers for simulations and real-life applications of math concepts scored higher, especially those students in middle school.

The study suggests that school districts should focus attention on professional development for teachers to make sure they know how to use computers with their students effectively.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said education technology specialist William L. Rukeyser in an interview with the Washington Post. Rukeyser runs Learning in the Real World, an organization in Woodland, Calif., devoted to the study of educational technology. But “I wish,” he added, that “we did not have to have tens of billions of dollars go down the drain to reach this point.”

Survey results

ETS researcher Harold Wenglinsky, the study’s author, used the test scores of 6,627 fourth-graders and 7,146 eighth-graders who took the math section of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most extensive study of student achievement in the country. For the first time, the test asked teachers how they used computers in their classes, allowing Wenglinsky to focus on how different uses affected test scores.

The study divided computer use into four categories: drill and practice, demonstration of new topics, mathematical games, and simulations and applications.

Eighth-graders whose teachers used computers for simulations and applications of concepts, such as showing the up and down movements of an elevator alongside a graph of its changing speed to demonstrate velocity, scored higher by two-fifths of a grade level than students who used computers in other ways.

Eighth-graders who used computers primarily for drill and practice, though, scored more than half a grade lower than students who used the computers in other ways.

MaryJo Watson, an instructional technology specialist for the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools, said the study’s results fit her observations. “When you take the same material that was on paper, there is not much more to it when you put it on the computer,” she said. “It still does not engage the student.”

Not surprisingly, the study found that students whose teachers had been trained to teach with computers scored higher than students whose teachers lacked such training.

“When computers are used to perform certain tasks, namely applying higher order concepts, and when teachers are proficient enough in computer use to direct students toward productive uses more generally, computers do seem to be associated with significant gains in mathematics achievement,” Wenglinsky concluded.

Some questions remain

Though the report indicates clear results among eighth-graders, it is likely to fuel further debate about computer use by younger students.

The study found no discernible difference in scores of fourth-graders whose teachers used simulations and applications. Wenglinsky suggested this might be due to the scarcity of teachers who use such methods with younger students.

But fourth-graders whose teachers had them play math learning games on computers did score about 15 percent of a grade level, or a few weeks’ worth of instruction, better than those who did not.

Of the modest results, Wenglinsky said: “The effects of technology appear to be much smaller in the fourth than the eighth grade and so may not be cost-effective. To the extent that the primary benefit of computers lies in applying higher order skills, there may not be much opportunity to benefit from using computers before middle school.”

The study also reveals that low-income students have as much access to computers as higher-income students, but were far more likely to engage in the less useful drill-and-practice exercises, rather than productive uses of computers.


Educational Testing Service

Milken Exchange on Education Technology

Education Week

Learning in the Real World

Washington Post

Fairfax County Public Schools