A recent study in New Jersey demonstrates that combining digital rewards with self-directed learning results in highly effective digital education tools.
“I’m missing basketball,” a student called out, interrupting our demonstration. I was with my design team at the Boys & Girls Club of Hudson County in Jersey City, N.J., piloting a web-based learning program called My.Future. Crafted to bolster the organization’s after-school offerings in STEM and career-readiness, My.Future helps Boys & Girls Club members follow their passions, set goals, and earn badges for their accomplishments.
As you can tell from this student’s reaction, not everyone was on board with the learning tool.
But when students scrolled through potential badges they could earn for computer science, leadership, and media making, the dynamic in the room changed. “What’s that?” asked the same student, pointing to a badge with golden headphones. “How do I get that?”
Well-designed digital badges and rewards, like the headphones, engage students and their imaginations. But digital rewards in education technology are most powerful when they’re used to help students set personalized learning goals. While I’ve long believed educational products can harness digital reward systems to make self-directed learning more fun, our beta testing at the Boys & Girls Club confirmed what the research suggests: Combining learning incentives with self-directed learning makes digital education tools more effective.
Giving students the opportunity to set learning goals makes education more fun, teaches students about the importance of persistence, and most importantly, improves learning. In a recent study conducted by RAND Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, personalized student learning was found to improve outcomes, regardless of student ability. In other words, give students the opportunity to choose and track personal learning goals, and their outcomes in math and reading skyrocket.
When ed tech software gamifies learning by offering students levels to conquer, points to accumulate, and badges to earn in pursuit of a goal, it gives students more opportunities to engage and delight in their education. Students report that they enjoy the learning process more when activities allow them to take an active role and engage directly with material. Higher engagement rates also make students more persistent when they encounter setbacks—helping them to develop grit. Simply put, students work better and harder when they feel like an active participant in the classroom.
But ed tech wasn’t first to figure this out—teachers were. Both project-driven learning and student-centered learning give students more autonomy in the classroom, allowing them to drive discussions, pursue their interests, and set meaningful goals. When teachers combine personalized instruction with incentive-driven in-class projects, they tend to see benefits like improved student motivation and better learning retention, too. Some research even suggests that teachers who prioritize goal-setting also experience fewer disciplinary problems, simply because their students are more engaged.
This is the research driving our most recent project for Literacy Pro, a Scholastic reading tool that helps students choose their own books and reading goals. Students swipe left or right on book covers, matching themselves to books that seem interesting. The software then offers a simple prompt: “How many minutes will you read each week?” Students can track how well they’re doing against their goal, perhaps even deciding to read more and more each night—ultimately blowing their goal out of the water without effort.