Science: Math App Adds Up for Math-Anxious Families

Using a simple math app at home with parental involvement could break the intergenerational cycle of low math achievement, new research suggests.

Researchers know that children whose parents are anxious about math also tend to struggle with the subject, but a new study that used a simple app to facilitate math interactions for families significantly improved children's performance within a matter of months.

The study, available for free in the 9 October issue of Science, builds upon previous research highlighting how math-related interactions between parents and children can affect children's math performance. For example, the amount of "number talk" that parents engage in with their preschool-aged children can affect their children's grasp of number concepts as they enter kindergarten.

This prompted Talia Berkowitz of the University of Chicago and her colleagues to test the effectiveness of a simple intervention that encouraged more math interactions at home. After recruiting a sample of 587 demographically diverse parents and their first-grade children in the Chicago area, they randomly assigned some families to use a math-based iPad app that involved reading short stories and answering questions on topics such as counting, shapes, and problem solving. A control group was assigned a reading-based app. Parents of the math group were also given a survey at the beginning of the study, probing their comfort level with the subject.

By the end of the school year a distinct trend in the math group emerged, where more frequent use of the app with parental involvement was associated with higher achievements. No similar difference was noted in the reading group, however. Children who frequently used the math app with their parents were at a level equivalent to having three extra months of math instruction in school, compared to the reading group.

"The app was especially beneficial for children of very math-anxious parents. These children made dramatic gains in math achievement when they engaged with the math app," Berkowitz said.

For children of high-math-anxious parents, a significant improvement in math abilities was evident if the app was used on average once a week, compared to those who used it less often.

For this group, "we were surprised that even infrequent use of the math app — just once a week — improved children's math achievement," says Berkowitz. In fact, more frequent use of the app (more than twice a week) did not result in any significant value added, suggesting that just a little bit of math interactions at home can go a long way for math-anxious families.

The authors suspect that the app was particularly successful for the anxious group because highly math-anxious parents tend to provide a low quality of math input in the home. Therefore, even a modest increase in high-quality parent-child math talk boosted their children's math achievement.

This study comes amid continued evolution of the multibillion-dollar educational app market. The results suggest that a simple intervention that engages math-anxious parents to talk more about the subject with their children could help break the intergenerational cycle of low math achievement.

Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, corresponding author of the study, noted that more research is forthcoming. "This study is part of a larger, 5-year longitudinal study. We are currently following these same students in the hopes of exploring the long-term impact of parents and children interacting around math on children's math attitudes and achievement."