Newswise — Secondary school students perform better in natural sciences and mathematics and are more motivated when digital tools are used in instruction. However, success depends on the design of the tools used. Success levels are higher when children and young adults do not study alone and when digital instruction is accompanied by paper-based teaching materials, according to the conclusion reached by one of the largest investigations on the topic, evaluating approximately 90 individual studies.

Digitalization of school instruction has been hotly debated for years. What programs should teachers use on the computer, when and how often? The debate is characterized by a challenging abundance of research projects. The Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has now evaluated a total of 92 studies published worldwide since the year 2000.

The meta-study shows that secondary school students in classes which work with digital teaching tools perform better than children and young adults in classes that are taught solely on a traditional basis. Furthermore these students are more motivated by the respective subject. This applies for all grades in secondary schools and for all the subjects investigated, i.e. mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics.

However, digital tools alone are no guarantee of success. Their impact on performance depends on how they are used in instruction: 

  • Children and young adults benefit more from digital teaching tools when they work together in pairs instead of alone. The researchers assume that computer programs play a special role in stimulating discussions between the students which can positively impact the learning process.  
  • Secondary school students perform better when accompanied by teachers while working with digital tools. When they work with computer programs entirely alone, the positive effect is minor. 
  • The positive effect of digital tools is greater when the tools do not completely replace classic classroom materials. A promising approach is to use them in supplement to analog methods. 
  • Digital tools increase performance more particularly when teachers have been professionally trained how to integrate them into the lessons.

Not even well-made programs can replace teachers

"Digital tools should be worked into instruction in moderation," says Prof. Kristina Reiss, head of the ZIB and dean of the TUM School of Education. "Getting rid of tried and proven analog formats would be going a step too far. In addition, we see that even very well-made learning programs cannot replace the teacher."

In well-planned application, the advantages of digital tools could be completely leveraged, in particular for complex and abstract content in natural sciences and mathematics, for example the visualization of chemical compounds and geometric shapes.

"If the new teaching methods can additionally increase the motivation of secondary school students, this will be a great opportunity for the STEM subjects," Reiss points out.

Some digital tools are more useful than others

The meta-study also indicates which types of digital tools are most promising. The greatest positive effect comes from what are referred to as intelligent tutor systems, programs which convey content in small units and also enable individual exercises. The decisive factor is that these programs adapt the speed, level of difficulty and amount of assistance to the user's skills. On the other hand, hypermedia systems configured for free exploration with video, audio and text materials that fail to define a learning objective are comparatively less effective.



Hillmayr, D., Ziernwald, L., Reinhold, F., Hofer, S. I., & Reiss, K. M. (2020). The potential of digital tools to enhance mathematics and science learning in secondary schools: A context-specific meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 153, 103897. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2020.103897

More information:

The Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) is run by three partners: Technical University of Munich (TUM), German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) and Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN). It conducts the German part of the PISA studies.

The meta-study was commissioned by the German Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs



Journal Link: Computers & Education