There are plenty of math facts apps out there that let students practice math facts they have already learned. Few apps actually teach math facts. But apps from Rocket Math and XtraMath are exceptions. While both apps teach students math facts, one is more effective and fun.
The two best apps for actually teaching math facts
Math facts apps from Rocket Math and XtraMath effectively teach math facts because they have four essential characteristics:
- Both math facts apps require students to demonstrate fluency with facts. Fluency means a student can quickly answer math fact questions from recall. This is the opposite of letting a student “figure it out” slowly. Neither app considers a fact mastered until a student can answer a fact consistently within 3 seconds.
- Both math facts apps zero in on teaching (and bringing to mastery) a small number of facts at a time. This is the only way to teach math fact fluency. It’s impossible for students to learn and memorize a large number of facts all at once.
- Both math facts apps are responsive. Apps simply do not teach if they randomly present facts or do not respond differently when students take a long time to answer a fact.
- Both math facts apps only allow students to work for a few minutes (less than ten) before taking a break. Teachers and parents may want to keep students busy practicing math facts for an hour, but students will come to hate the app if they have long sessions. A few minutes of practice in each session is the best way to learn and to avoid student burnout.
- Both math facts apps re-teach the fact if a student makes an error. While both Rocket Math and XtraMath re-teach facts, they re-teach them differently.
While both apps contain these important features and teach math facts, there are a few vital elements that make an effective app like Rocket Math standout.
An effective app gives a student a sense of accomplishment
The difficult thing about learning math facts is that there are so many to learn. It takes a while and students have to persevere through boring memorization tasks. The best way to help students learn their math facts is to give them a clear sense of accomplishment as they move through each task.
How XtraMath monitors progress
To develop a sense of accomplishment among its app users, XtraMath displays math facts on a grid. XtraMath tests the student and marks the ones that are answered quickly (within 3 seconds) with smiley faces. It takes a couple of sessions to determine what has been mastered and what hasn’t, so there isn’t a sense of accomplishment at first. This grid is displayed and explained, but it’s not easy to monitor progress. Over time, there are fewer squares with facts to learn, but there isn’t clear feedback on what’s being accomplished as students work.
How Rocket Math monitors progress
Conversely, Rocket Math begins recognizing student progress immediately and continues to celebrate progress at every step. The Rocket Math app begins with Set A and progresses up to Set Z. Each lettered set has three phases: Take-Off, Orbit, and the Universe. That means there are 78 milestones celebrated in the process of moving from Set A to Set Z.
Take-Off phase has only 2 problems (and their reverses) repeated three times. The student just has to get all 12 correct to move on. When the student does that, the doors close (with appropriate sound effects) to show “Mission Accomplished.” They also are congratulated by Mission Control. “Mission Control here. You did it! Mission Accomplished! You took off with Set A! Go for Orbit if you dare!” With this type of consistent (and fun!) recognition, students clearly understand that they are progressing, and they get the chance to keep learning “if they dare!”
In addition to the three phases, students progress through the sets from A to Z. Each time a student masters a set, by going through all three phases, the student gets congratulated and taken to their rocket picture, as shown above. When a level is completed, the tile for that level explodes (with appropriate sound effects) and drops off the picture, gradually revealing more of the picture as tiles are demolished.
In the picture above, the tile for “N” has just exploded. After the explosion, a student is congratulated for passing Level N and encouraged to go for Level O if they dare. When you talk to students about Rocket Math, they always tell you what level they have achieved. “I’m on Level K!” a student will announce with pride. That sense of accomplishment is important for them to keep chugging along.
An effective math facts app correct errors—correctly
Neither of these math fact apps allow errors to go uncorrected. Students will never learn math facts from an app that does not correct errors. That puts these two apps head and shoulders above the competition. However, these two apps correct errors very differently.
How XtraMath corrects errors
On the left, you can see the XtraMath correction is visual. If a student enters the wrong answer, the app crosses the incorrect answer out in red and displays the correct answer in gray. A student then has to enter the correct answer that they see. This is a major mistake. In this case, students don’t have to remember the answer. They just have to enter the numbers in gray.
How Rocket Math corrects errors
Rocket Math, however, provides only an auditory correction. When a student answers incorrectly, the screen turns orange and Mission Control recites the correct problem and answer. In the pictured situation, Mission Control says, “Three plus 1 is four. Go again.” Under these conditions, the student has to listen to the correction and remember the answer, so they can enter it correctly.
Following an incorrect answer to a target problem, the app presents two more problems. Then it presents the previously target problem, on which the student made the error, again.
If the student answers the previously missed problem correctly within the three seconds, the game notes the error, and the student continues through the phase. If the student fails to answer the problem correctly again, the correction process repeats until the student answers correctly. Having to listen to and remember the answer, rather than just copy the answer, helps students learn better.
An effective math app gives meaningful feedback
Without feedback, students can’t learn efficiently and get frustrated. But the feedback cannot be generic. It has to dynamically respond to different student behavior.
How XtraMath’s app gives feedback
XtraMath’s charming “Mr. C” narrates all of the transitions between parts of each day’s lesson. He welcomes students, says he is happy to see them, and updates students on their progress. He gives gentle, generic feedback about how you’re getting better and to remember to try to recall the facts instead of figuring them out. However, his feedback remains the same no matter how you do. In short, it is non-contingent feedback, which may not be very meaningful to students.
How Rocket Math’s app gives feedback
Differing from XtraMath, Rocket Math offers students a lot of feedback that is contingent. Contingent feedback means that students will receive different types of feedback depending on their responses.
The Rocket Math app gives positive feedback for all the 78 accomplishments noted above. It also doles out corrective feedback when the student isn’t doing well.
As noted above, students receive corrective feedback on all errors. They get feedback when they take longer than three seconds to answer too. The “Time’s Up” screen on the right pops up and Mission Control says, “Ya’ gotta be faster! Wait. Listen for the answer.” And then the problem and the correct answer are given. Students get a chance to answer that fact again soon and redeem themselves–proving they can answer it in 3 seconds.
The app tracks errors and three strikes mean the student has to “Start Over” with that phase. At that point, the doors close (with appropriate sound effects) and then the student has to hit “go” and the doors open (with appropriate sound effects) to try it again.
When it comes to recognizing a student’s success, the Rocket Math app holds nothing back. After a student completes a phase, Mission Control gives enthusiastic congratulations as noted above.
Typically, students don’t have to “start over” more than once or twice in a phase, but they still feel a real sense of accomplishment when they do complete the phase. The feedback students get from Rocket Math matters because they have to work hard to earn it.
How much does an effective math facts app cost?
It is hard to beat the price of XtraMath, which is free. XtraMath is run by a non-profit based in Seattle. They have a staff of six folks in Seattle, and they do accept donations. Their product is great, and they are able to give it away.
Rocket Math is run by one person, Dr. Don. He supports the app, its development and himself with the proceeds. He answers his own phone and is happy to talk with teachers about math facts. The Rocket Math Online Game is a good value at $1 a year per seat (when ordering 100 or more seats). Twenty to 99 seats are $2 each. And fewer than 20 seats cost $3.89 each per year. As one principal-customer of Rocket Math said, “We used to have XtraMath. We’d rather pay a little bit for Rocket Math because the kids like it better.”