Digital Learning Resources in Mathematics Education

(primary and secondary education results)

Digital learning resources for mathematics are used in schools with the aim of improving student achievement. The evidence shows that many digital learning resources can be used to develop students’ mathematical capabilities, especially when they are integrated into a rich teaching environment. However, it is not possible to rule out that comparable learning outcomes can be reached with the use of traditional instruction.

What is this review about?

This systematic review examines research on the effect of using digital learning resources on mathematics achievement in preK–12 classrooms. Here we present the results for primary and secondary education, including students 7–18 years old.

What studies are included?

A total of 75 studies are included in this analysis. Only two studies were conducted in Sweden, but all studies refer to a mathematical content relevant to the Swedish context. In lower grades, digital learning resources focusing on number facts and the understanding of the number system are most frequent, although some of these also cover other fields such as algebra or geometry. In the higher grades, a focus on algebra, correlations and rates of change is most common.

What are the main results in this review?

During the work with the review, we identified five categories of digital learning resources for mathematics. The categories overlap, but our intention was to try to identify a principle mechanism for the different types of learning resources.

Tasks: learning resources that deliver maths tasks with different levels of adaptation based on individual performance. This category includes, for instance, computer-assisted instruction.

Objects: learning recourses where mathematics and mathematical objects, i.e. geometrical shapes, can be represented by using digital media. This category includes, for  instance, virtual manipulatives.

Games: learning resources that apply gaming mechanisms to mediate mathematical content, including, for instance, adventures with assignments, challenges, playful exploring, as well as scoring systems and competition.

Tools: software developed for other purposes than educational, but that can be used to perform mathematical activities. This category includes, for instance, graphing calculator software.

Curriculum software: extensive learning resources covering several different mathematical concepts and topics.

Research clearly shows that it is feasible to design digital learning resources that can be used to develop students’ mathematical capabilities, especially when they are integrated into a rich teaching environment. However, we cannot rule out that comparable learning outcomes can be reached with the use of traditional mathematics instruction.

The most apparent effects on student achievement are seen when instructions are clearly focused within a limited and specified mathematical area. In these cases, the mathematical content is generally chosen with care, placing an emphasis on concepts that are generally perceived as being difficult for most students. Often, researchers talk about threshold concepts – key concepts or procedures that students need to master in order to develop further within a certain area. Examples of threshold concepts in this review are fractions and functions.

Furthermore, digital learning resources which enable students to experience and discern mathematical concepts and processes in a visual and dynamic manner seem to enhance their knowledge acquisition.

The review indicates that no category, except for curriculum software, stands out regarding effects on mathematics achievement. Both the use of tasks and objects, as well as games and tools, can improve students’ achievement. The use of digital tools has, however, been investigated in only two studies. The research on curriculum software has generally been conducted with large groups of students over long periods of time. In this sense, these studies differ substantially from those focusing on a limited and specified mathematical content. Also, concerning learning outcomes there is a clear contrast; taken together, curriculum software seems to generate no discernible effects on general mathematics achievement.

Research further shows how the teacher’s role and work may be very different depending on the design and purpose of a specific digital learning resource. While some resources are designed mainly for students’ independent work, others require that the teacher manages the activities. The review shows that both strategies may be equally effective.

What do the findings in this review mean?

This systematic review provides teachers with knowledge of important aspects regarding the design and use of digital learning resources for mathematics education. The review gives guidance on what can be achieved, and how teachers can plan their work in order to facilitate an effective mathematics instruction with the support of digital resources.

About this systematic review

We have compiled international primary research studying the use of digital learning resources on mathematics achievement in preK–12 classrooms. The research questions we answer in this review are:

  • What are the effects of teaching mathematics with the support of digital learning resources on learner achievement?
  • What might explain whether teaching with the support of digital learning resources has, or fails to have, an effect on learner achievement in mathematics?

Searches in both Swedish and international research databases resulted in 9,515 citations, of which 85 studies were eligible for review. 75 of these concern primary and secondary education, whereas 10 studies concern preschools. All studies were conducted as controlled experiments, meaning that the researchers have compared two or more teaching strategies with each other. Only studies estimating the effects of teaching mathematics with the support of digital learning resources on learner achievement have been included.