Apps can be an excellent resource for learning in an informal, out-of-school setting. However, developers and parents need to know how children learn best. We are entering the second wave of educational apps. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and her co-researchers believe that now is the time to apply Science of Learning principles to this cutting-edge learning tool in order to foster active, engaged, meaningful and socially interactive learning.

Apple’s app store offers more than 80,000 “educational apps.“ But have the designers of all these apps taken into account what has been shown to be best able to achieve learning goals? How can we evaluate an educational app? A research team with an extensive background in the Science of Learning, led by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, has created a framework for app developers and parents, offering guidelines for determining what makes an app truly educational. In their paper, published in 2015, they focus on apps designed for 0–8-year-olds, an age range that includes critical periods in child development.

The authors share insights gained by researchers in the Science of Learning field over the past decades. They point out that there are four main “pillars of learning,” whether in the context of conventional learning, learning in television or app-based learning. Those pillars are the following:

  • Active, “minds-on” learning takes place when children experience learning as a collaborative process and are able to actively build understanding. Teaching someone else or taking notes while absorbing information can also help. For apps, this means that some kind of cognitive activity should be required; physical actions alone, such as activating basic touch-screen functions or moving the device, are not enough. Control is a key factor: The app needs to allow children to proceed at their own pace.
  • Engaged learning is strongly linked to a low level of distraction. Individuals who are truly engaged in learning will develop a state of “flow” (intrinsic motivation). Fancy features in an app may disrupt one’s cognitive processing capacity because they interrupt the narrative. What supports engagement and concentration is contingent interaction – e.g. when an app responds immediately to an action taken by the child. Rewards (extrinsic motivation) can be helpful but should not be overdone.
  • Meaningful learning takes place when information is embedded into a meaningful context. Learners need to be able to connect experiences and use them to build their own model. While memorizing a huge set of unconnected facts (rote learning) can serve as a basis for meaningful learning, it is inefficient without a conceptual framework. An app can promote meaningful learning by interacting with content that is connected to children’s lives instead of just conveying isolated facts.
  • Socially interactive learning is based on a collaborative learning experience, and is particularly successful when learning a language. Naturally, responsitivity is limited in apps. However, they offer various possibilities for social interaction: They can allow multiple users to work on a learning process together, for example, or they can facilitate mediated interactions or parasocial relationships with on-screen characters.

Hirsh-Pasek and her co-authors also emphasize the importance of scaffolded exploration toward a learning goal. Research has shown that in seeking to achieve such a goal, assisted discovery methods such as guided play work better than direct instruction or completely free play alone. For apps, this may mean being able to adjust content to suit the learning style and speed of individual children. Finally, it is not enough for apps to call themselves “educational”; they need to focus primarily on promoting education and not only on providing entertainment.

A grid for determining the pedigree of an app. Putting Education in “Educational” Apps by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek et al.
A grid for determining the pedigree of an app. Putting Education in “Educational” Apps by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek et al.

For evaluating an existing app or one that is currently being developed, the authors suggest a framework that takes into account the four pillars described above as well as learning goals. A simple grid, with the “Pillar Score” (delivery of all four characteristics) on one axis and the “Educational Context” (whether an app’s learning goals are high) on the other, shows the extent to which the app reflects Science of Learning principles.

Hirsh-Pasek and her co-researchers have provided not only guidelines for evaluation, but also a framework for developing new apps. The second wave of educational apps has just begun, and these insights from the burgeoning field of “Science of Learning” can help to make them better.


To our blog readers – parents, teachers, and scientists: From your experience, what makes an app educational? We are interested in your insights and opinions. Please share them via the comments function. Let’s discuss!


Putting Education in “Educational” Apps – Lessons From the Science of Learning
by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, James H. Gray, Michael B. Robb, and Jordy Kaufman
Published by aps Association for Psychological Science in 2015


Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was the recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Bronfenbrenner Award and the Temple University Great Teacher Award. An author of 12 books and hundreds of publications, she recently received the 2015 Association for Psychological Science James McKeen Cattell Award and the APA Distinguished Lecturer Award. More

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