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Making educational apps that are ‘apt’ for today’s learners

To develop a new revision app, we wanted find out how today’s ‘digital native’ learners approach learning, how to get the best out of apps and how they can complement learning in the classroom.

15 Jan 2019
Written by Caroline Phipps
Today’s learners are ‘digital natives’, growing up immersed in technology, and this is influencing their learning preferences and methods. A recent survey by The Harris Poll on Generation Z – those aged 14-23 – revealed that they see technology as vital to their learning. 60% rely on YouTube for quick and efficient explanations of key concepts, which reflects a shift in learning styles towards a preference for visual learning. As Peter Broad, Director of Global Research and Insights, reflects in Education Week: ‘When young learners are looking for answers, they’re going to the most straightforward, familiar force … They want to learn as quickly as possible.' 
Changing learning preferences
With this in mind, we want to develop educational resources that suit the needs of today’s digital natives. This is something that’s particularly important when it comes to resources for revision where a large amount of study is independent and self-directed. When planning our new revision resources for International GCSE Maths A, we conducted our own survey on the learning approaches of Generation Z students preparing for exams. Here’s what we found out about their preferred format for revision resources:

Exam board-specific revision guides were still a popular choice (32%), but bitesize materials, such as flashcards (36%) and apps (24%), were gaining in popularity. Although some resources were more suited to certain points in the revision cycle, most students used a variety of different resources. So, whilst an app wouldn’t replace a traditional study guide, it could certainly complement revision by providing easy access to bitesize chunks of content and quick testing of knowledge.    
 What do students expect from a revision app?
We decided to build an app as part of our revision package, using it to deliver flashcard content for ‘on the go’ learning. As part of its product development, to make sure it really did meet students’ needs, we held a customer focus group with 25 International IGCSE Maths A students at Abingdon School. We wanted to find out what they expected from revision resources, particularly digital learning resources, and to conduct UX (user experience) testing on some early prototypes of the app.
In the first half of the session, we split the class into groups to discuss how they use technology for revision. This allowed us to dig deeper into their thinking around apps, e.g. how/why they might use them to revise and the functionality they expected. They also came up with some common barriers to revision and how digital learning might be able to remove these.
The second half of the session was dedicated to UX testing. Individual students were asked to complete a series of tasks using the prototype app on a smartphone. We asked them to share their thought processes as they navigated around the app, noting where their expectations weren’t met, or if anything confused them. 

We were surprised at the students’ approaches to using digital devices in their learning. Many of them still preferred to practise calculations and do their workings out on paper. The process of writing something down helped it to stick in their memory. However, they did use flashcards to revisit key learning points and track their understanding throughout the revision process. They expressed a keen interest in pre-made flashcards, particularly if these were available on their phone for them to use ‘on the go’ in any spare time they had between lessons or travelling to/from school: technology used to save time and be more efficient.
Their expectations around a paid-for app were high (students wanted a large question bank, personalised learning and automatic assessment tracking), but few would be willing to pay more than a couple of pounds. 
What did students think of the International GCSE Maths A revision app?
Feedback on the simple version of the app prototype was positive, especially when offered as part of the revision guide package. Students really liked the simple navigation and that they could access this content offline, making revision convenient wherever they were. They also liked the quick-fire questions on the digital flashcards and being able to swipe to reveal a worked solution of the answer. The option to watch a video of many of the worked solutions was a big bonus and made the digital format attractive to visual learners.
The main takeaway from the focus group was that it’s vital to test a new digital product with users. Getting initial feedback from them on our prototype had a real influence on the product development process, ensuring that the revision app suited Generation Z’s learning styles and approaches. 
How do apps fit in with traditional methods of study?
Digital products don’t need to be a replacement for traditional methods of study – they just need to complement and reinforce the teaching already going on in the classroom. Apps can be used in tandem with guides and teacher-led resources to meet the need for quick and bitesize learning. They’re a great way to support visual learners, or to track the learning journey with quick-fire questions, or to provide an alternative format for reaching learners and presenting key concepts. But most importantly, they suit the needs of digital natives, by making learning convenient ‘anywhere, anytime’ they choose. 
For more information about our Edexcel International GCSE Maths A revision resources, please visit our website or contact your local sales representative. 
About the author
Caroline Phipps is a Commissioning Editor for Pearson’s Global Schools team, publishing teaching and learning resources to support Pearson Edexcel International GCSE and International A Level qualifications. She is currently working on revision resources to support International GCSE Maths A, including an app to support ‘on the go’ learning. 

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