Using digital tools to teach STEM could improve learning outcomes

Phil Roeder, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Phil Roeder, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Digital tools can help students learn maths and science, especially when used alongside a variety of teaching methods. But improvements in learning outcomes also depend on the type of learning environment.

This finding comes from a major round-up of research from the last twenty years. The work was carried out by a research team from Ludwig Maximilian University and the Technical University of Munich. The team set out to clarify how the use of a wide range of digital tools affect learning outcomes in maths, chemistry, biology, and physics – subjects that students often struggle with.

The study confirmed that digital tools appear to help secondary school students achieve improved results and develop more positive attitudes towards STEM learning.

“Our findings suggest that digital tools are most effective when teachers use them in addition to other teaching methods – in other words, to enrich their teaching practice,” says researcher Sarah Hofer.

A further finding of the research is that learning outcomes are better when teachers are trained to use the digital tool. Hofer is keen to point out how important it is for teachers to understand which digital tools to use – and when to use them – to achieve these improvements.

“Professional development, teacher training, and regular exchange with more experienced peers can equip teachers with the skills necessary to take advantage of digital technology,” she told me.

“Digital tools are most effective when teachers use them in addition to other teaching methods – in other words, to enrich their teaching practice.”

Bringing change to the classroom

Many aspects of the study’s findings could be easily implemented in classrooms. For example, the findings reveal that students seem to gain the most when they use digital tools in pairs. It’s likely that teamwork sparks discussion and stimulates deeper learning.

The study also found that:

  • students who receive support from teachers or their peers while using the digital tool benefit the most
  • digital tools are most effective when used to explain complex and abstract content, such as geometry and the visualization of chemical compounds
  • tools with defined learning objectives are the most effective
  • benefits are greatest in physics classes
  • improvement in learning outcomes are slightly greater for older students in grades 11-13.

While the overall impact of using digital tools was positive, Hofer and her colleagues observed a strong variance in effectiveness across the different studies they looked at. This suggests that “the potential of digital tools to support learning depends to a large extent on the particular learning situation.”

“The interplay between the content to be learnt, the individual learners’ needs, and the specific use of the digital tool is likely to influence success,” Hofer told me.

More detailed research could help clarify how digital tools enhance specific aspects of learning. Establishing which tools would best support which topics is also important.

“The interplay between the content to be learnt, the individual learners’ needs, and the specific use of the digital tool is likely to influence success.”

“Just as it might be only of limited interest to ask whether learning with textbooks or with an abacus is generally effective,” Hofer explained, “future research should further investigate when and how we could use digital tools to best support learning for a wide range of students.”

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