Math Facts App Comparison: Rocket Math vs. XtraMath

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

Does Your Kid’s App Teach Math Fact Fluency – Or Waste Time?

Just playing a math facts game won’t build math fact fluency

There are a lot of apps out there that look like they would help your child learn math fact fluency.  If they have to answer math facts, won’t that work?  Not really.  Just playing a game that asks you to answer facts won’t help you learn new facts.  In fact, most apps for practicing facts are discouraging to students who don’t know their facts well.  Why?  Because most of the people designing the app don’t have any experience teaching.  A teacher, like the creator of the Rocket Math App, is trained to effectively teach new math facts (or any facts) to a student and knows an effective math app from an ineffective one.

3 essential features of an effective math fact app

There are plenty of ineffective math apps.  Some apps don’t give the answers when a student doesn’t know them.  Some apps just fill in the answer for the student and then move on.  When the student doesn’t know the answer, the app has to teach it.  To teach math fact fluency, the app has to do these three things:

  1. The app has to tell the problem and the answer to the student.

  2. It has to ask the student to give the correct answer to the problem.

  3. It has to ask the problem again after a short delay to see if the student can remember the answer.

Without doing these three things there’s no way the app is going to be able to teach a new fact to the student.

An effective math app will only teach a few math facts at a time

Nobody can learn a bunch of new and similar things all at the same time.  A person can only learn two, three, or four facts at a time. You cannot expect to learn more.*  That’s enough for one session.  The student has to practice those facts a lot of times to commit them to memory.  Once or twice is not enough. It also won’t help to practice the same fact over and over.  Proper math fact fluency practice intermingles new math facts along with facts the learner has already memorized.  However, no more than two to four facts should be introduced at a time.  If a student has to answer a lot of random untaught math facts, you will have a very frustrated learner.

Practice must focus on building math fact fluency

Some students learn to solve addition problems by counting on their fingers.  That’s a good beginner strategy, but students need to get past that stage. They need to be able to simply and quickly recall the answers to math facts. An app is good for developing recall.  But the app has to ask students to answer the facts quickly, faster than they can count on their fingers.  The app has to distinguish when a student is recalling the fact (which is quick) from figuring out the fact (which is slow).  Second, the app must repeatedly ask the learned facts in a random order, so students are recalling.  But the app should not throw in new facts until all the facts are mastered and can be answered quickly.

Introduce new facts only when old facts are mastered

The trick to effectively teaching math facts is to introduce new math facts at an appropriate pace.  If you wait too long to introduce math facts, it gets boring and wastes time.  If you go too fast, students become confused.  Before introducing new facts, students need to master everything you’ve given them.  An effective app will test whether students have mastered the current batch of math facts before introducing more facts.  And it will also introduce math facts at a pace based on student mastery.  That’s the final piece of the puzzle to ensure students learn math facts from an app.

*Rocket Math App focuses on two facts and their reverses at a time, such as 3+4=7, 4+3=7, 3+5=8 and 5+3=8.

Why Multiplication Games Are Awful & What to Do About It

As a university supervisor of pre-service teachers, I’ve seen my share of bad lessons.  Among the most painful were when student teachers would try to liven up their lessons to impress me by having the students do a math game.  My student teachers wanted their students to learn math facts and to do so in a fun way.  The picture above is typical of what I would see.  Here are the reasons that most multiplication games that the student teachers implemented were awful.

(For multiplication games that work in and out of the classroom, check out Rocket Math’s Worksheet Program and Online Game.)

Waiting for your turn at a multiplication game is not learning!

As you can see in the picture above, all but one of the students are just waiting for their turn.  They aren’t doing math.  The students are just watching the student who is playing.  No one likes waiting, and your students are no exception.  Any game that has turn-taking among more than two students wastes time.

Make sure your multiplication games are structured so all or most students are engaged and playing all the time.  You want students to have as much engaging practice as possible while practicing math facts at speed.  If everyone can be doing that at the same time, that’s optimal.  No more than two students should be taking turns at a time.

A multiplication game that allows using a known strategy to figure out facts (like finger counting) is not learning!

Learning math facts involves memorizing these facts so that students know them by memory, by recall.  Committing facts to memory is why there is a need for lots of practice.  If the game allows time for students to count on their fingers or use some other strategy for figuring out the answer to facts, then there is no incentive for students to get better.

In the lower left corner of the picture you can see one student counting on their fingers—which is better than just watching—but is not learning the facts, it is just figuring them out.  The most able students in an elementary school are able to memorize facts on their own when they tire of figuring them out day in and day out.  But the rest of the students will just do their work patiently year after year without memorizing if you don’t create the conditions for them to memorize facts.

Make sure that your multiplication games reward remembering facts quickly rather than just figuring them out.  Speed should be the main factor after accuracy.  Fast-paced games are more fun and the point should be that the more facts you learn the better you’ll do.

Multiplication games that randomly present ALL the facts make learning impossible.

It is a basic fact of learning that no one can memorize a bunch of similar things all at once.  To memorize information, like math facts, the learner must work on a few, two to four facts, at a time.  With sufficient practice, every learner can memorize a small number of math facts. Once learners master a set of math facts, they can learn another batch.  But if a whole lot are presented all at once, it is impossible for the learner to memorize them.

Make sure your multiplication games are structured so that each student is presented with only facts they know.  A good game presents only a few facts at a time.  As students learn some of the math facts, more can be added, but at a pace that allows the learner to keep up.  The optimal learning conditions are for the learner to have a few things to learn in a sea of already mastered material.

Rocket Math Multiplication Games

We designed Rocket Math games to help kids gradually (and successfully) master math skills. Students use Rocket Math’s Worksheet Program to practice with partners, then take timings. Students can also individually develop math fact fluency—from any device, anywhere, any time of day—with Rocket Math’s Online Game.

Add Login info for classes with csv file

Assign Subscriptions. The orange box on your dashboard shows the number “Unassigned Subscriptions” you have that can be assigned to students. You can give these subscriptions to students by using the blue + Import Students Logins From CSV button.
That page–the pop-up labeled “Import Student Logins From CSV” looks like this picture to the left.
Begin at #1 and click on “CSV template to fill in” to get a properly formatted starting point.
See the blank csv template to the right. You’ll enter the student’s first and last name, make up a username and a passcode for the student. Enter the code number for the learning track they will start in. You can change it at any time. Add the Teacher Mgr’s email if you wish to connect the student to a different teacher that you set up in your account.
Once you have completed the file, save it to your computer as a CSV file (it’s an excel file now, so you have to choose Save As and find Comma Separated Value -CSV in the list).
Now go back to the pop-up labeled “Import Student Logins From CSV” and do #2 Choose file and browse to the csv file you just saved and select it. Then go to the bottom of the page at #3 and hit the blue button that says “Parse CSV.”
After you hit “Parse CSV” you’ll see a list of your students. Scroll to the bottom and hit the blue button that says “Import Students.” Then they will be set up in the system.
If something goes wrong, you can use the red button on your Dashboard that says “Delete ALL students!” It is extreme, but it will clear out all of your student data, allowing you to start over and re-import.
If you have a bunch of trouble, send me your csv files and I will do the import for you. -Dr.Don