Drilling: No matter what the subject, repetition and self-testing are essential tools in a student’s kit— iPad offers new twists to these fundamental techniques.
General Drilling: Flashcards
The core idea is the same as it ever was: on one side of the flashcard is a prompt or question, on the other, the information the student is trying to produce on demand…turn it over to see how you did, move on to the next card.
The various iPad flashcard apps all mimic that workflow, but as is so often the case with apps that emulate traditional educational tools, they end up offering a good deal more than their physical counterpart ever could.
Audio and images
Using apps like Mental Case or Flashcards Deluxe, students are able to populate the flashcard decks with their own questions and answers. But in addition to traditional text-based quizzes, students can record their own audio questions, or use images as question prompts.
This means, for example, that they can prepare for a biology quiz by working with the same diagrams that they’ll probably have to label in their exam, or prepare for a spelling test by listening to each word, before they attempt to spell it for themselves.
Stacking the deck
Whether the questions are text, images, audio, or a combination of all three, it’s once the student then starts doing the drill that these apps come into their own. Instead of simply flipping through the shuffled deck, the apps also pay close attention to what the student gets right, and what needs more practice, and will intelligently stack the deck accordingly. Questions that the student struggles with end up being seeded to reappear more frequently, while those that are no problem appear rarely—or, if the student prefers, never again. By skewing the question pool like this, students spend less time rehashing what they already know, and more time absorbing content they’re less familiar with.
It’s rigorous, it’s sensitive to the student’s developing strengths and weaknesses, and—speaking as a long time piano teacher and martial arts instructor who has seen the power of drilling time and again—it works.
Cover and reveal
Evernote Peek uses iPad’s smartcover to help students test themselves—roll back the cover one slat to see a question; roll back two to reveal the answer, tap if you got it wrong; roll back three and see your cumulative score.
To load up the next question, simply close the cover again—and then this is the piece of brilliance from Evernote—when you open the cover one slat, your iPad responds to the magnets in the latch, and you’ll see a brand new question. (see the video top right)
Questions can be studied in a set order, or selected randomly, while the app tracks what you had trouble with so that you can retest on your weak areas. As the teacher, you could easily create the drills within Evernote itself, and ensure that the entire class is being tested on the same material—a painlessly efficient way to help students prepare for quizzes.
Mathematics lends itself particularly well to app-based drilling—questions can be randomly generated, and correction automated, so that teachers are not wasting their time marking, nor students forced to wait for feedback.
One of the most beautifully presented and comprehensive of the basic arithmetic drilling apps is MathBoard. Covering addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, cubes and cube root problems, the app is enormously configurable so that it can accommodate students from Kindergarten right through to upper elementary.
Because the questions are randomly generated, students will never see exactly the same drill twice, and can actually do their working simply by drawing on their iPad with their finger. If they have trouble with a question, the app will actually take them through a fully worked solution.
The fact that multiplication tables is an education reality so universal it’s almost a cliche, means that the app store is awash with tables-drilling apps. That’s very different from being awash with good tables-drilling apps though.
One of the better apps is Multiflow, which is actually several drilling tools in one. Set it to “Pick ‘em” and you can choose which tables to drill; “Mad Minute” introduces time pressure by giving the student 60 seconds to answer as many questions correctly as they can, while “reversals” cleverly starts with the answer, and then expects the student to find the question that matches, thus loosening the jar lid on division.
Taking a different approach is Times Table Pro, which pits the student against “Bot” with a series of configurable and high-production-values games and quizzes. The app also maintains a “review bank” of incorrectly-answered tables, so the student can focus their practice on what actually needs the help. This is an app with stunning visuals, and will appeal to students without being condescending to them—the same developers have also created Division Pro as a complementary drilling tool.
Mental Maths skills
For students who want to develop savant-like powers of mental arithmetic, Mathemagics is an eye-opening tour of 63 different calculation tricks, enabling students to perform feats such as squaring any two digit number or testing for divisibility by 7 in their head…and quickly. The app walks the student through how, and then lets them practice with unlimited randomly generated examples.
This is a good app to run against a stopwatch: it’s impressive enough to be able to perform these mental feats at all, but to keep on beating your personal best is even better—the raw material possibly for some in-class Math Olympics events. (It’s a great way to dazzle parents…my kid just calculated the square of what?…)
While I do my best in this book to give you a vicarious experience of what various apps have to offer, there are some that you just have to try for yourself to understand. Dragon Box is one such app, and has been designed to demystify and drill core algebra concepts…I cannot even begin to describe how it works, except to say this: if you have any interest in algebra, you should download this as soon as you can. You’ll be stunned once you realize what it’s actually doing.
Waiting for you is an addictive and engaging romp through the techniques students will need to simplify basic equations…and, yet, it doesn’t feel like algebra at all. This is a triumph not just of first rate design, but of educationally lateral thinking, and is a showcase example of how to sneak up on mastery.
Tangentially similar to Dragon Box is Algebra Touch, which we also looked at in the Calculating section of this book. But while it offers in-built calculating functions for the arithmetic involved (because the arithmetic is not the point, the algebra is) at its heart it’s a tool for drill and practice. Students can combine like terms, simplify fractions, regroup, factorize, all just by dragging terms around—the app will only allow such dragging and rearranging if the move would have been “legal”, but won’t intervene if the move you made doesn’t take you closer to the answer.
This means that for students using it, it’s a wonderfully tactile tool for experimentation: it allows them to try “what if” for each question, and then quickly reset if they end up stumbling down a dead end. And because they’re freed from having to worry about the arithmetic component—the app can work things out for you with a single tap once you have 274x+5871x on the same side of the equation—the focus constantly returns to the processes that underpin the algebra they’re doing now, rather than the arithmetic they did four years ago.
Geometry is not (yet) as well represented as arithmetic on the app store, but one drill collection worth looking at is Geometry !!!, which cleverly allows students to not only submit their answers to their teacher, but the working they used to get there.
The over 600 questions seem to be scanned papers in a set order, rather than randomly generated, so there’s not the infinite retesting capacity that really should come with an iPad drilling app—it’s more like a traditional paper textbook in this regard—but students will get through a lot of material before they run out.
…or the entire syllabus
Mathletics is a vast online resource that includes everything in the US, UK or Australian maths syllabus from K-12, and allows subscribed students to log in and then work on random self-marked examples for every topic. Students earn points for completing drills, and then can see their tally on a worldwide leaderboard; if they get stuck, there are worked examples for every question asked.
It’s a big idea, and it’s been done well.
As of the time of writing, the iPad client for this service had only just been released, which meant that some of the questions that are otherwise available on the Mac/PC versions were not available yet, but if you’re a math teacher, you need to be aware of this resource—it’s a beautifully presented, oddly addictive compilation of just about everything you’d need to teach, with quizzes that can be taken over and over without being the same twice.
And to top it off, it features a series of head-to-head drills in basic mental arithmetic where students can compete in real time against peers from around the world—you can see their flag behind them, like it’s a world championship. Get as many right in the time limit as you can, three incorrect answers and you’re out, to keep students from rapid-firing guesses…meanwhile, you can see everyone’s score updating in real time, as the clock counts down. This is not just another math drill claiming to be fun—this is fun, and will push a lot of the same buttons for your students as their computer games already do.
Foreign Language Drills
Most student vocab learning requirements can be handled with the flashcard apps we looked at at the start of this chapter—there are a number of dedicated full immersion language learning apps that also allow you to listen, and will even assess your pronunciation, but they tend to be sell-one-of-your-kidneys expensive.
There’s an intriguing option that’s free though, which somehow combines learning a new language with actively contributing to an initiative that is aiming to translate the entire world wide web(!). Duolingo lets you learn new vocab in part by translating real world text from actual websites, while also featuring an inbuilt leveling system that allows you to compete with others. Currently it offers drilling in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian…and, for your ESL students, English. Just be aware that the app requires an internet connection to work.
No, don’t ask me how it works under the hood. Check out the video to the right though; the whole Duolingo experiment is one of those ideas that really should be a TED talk.
Fine tuning your pronunciation
While there are software-based pronunciation assessments available, Hello-Hello World allows users to upload their attempted pronunciation, and then have other (native speaking) users give feedback.
So as a user, you have a dual role; both as student who gets feedback from others, and to give feedback to those who are studying the language you happen to speak. An elegant idea, possible only in an internet age, and for students with internet enabled devices.
One of the most common tasks confronting elementary school students is to prepare for a weekly spelling test—Super Speller doesn’t come armed with lists of its own, but instead allows the student to create their own spelling list, and then test themselves on that content.
To enter each word, the app asks the student both to type and then record themselves saying the word—that way when they’re being tested, the words will be called out just as they would be at school. (It’s difficult to test spelling without a feature like this)
To help them prepare for tests, before diving into drilling of any sort, the app can turn that list into wordsearch/scrambler minigames, while the mockup test itself can feature a smiley-face which reacts in real time to each typed letter—if it likes what it sees, it smiles, if you’re close-but-not-right it pulls a quizzical face, and if you’re miles off it looks positively apoplectic. (When I was testing this, my eight year old thought it was very funny to spell “cow” as “thqzyfbdjp”, just to watch the smiley face have a panic attack).
Band and music directors at schools will be well aware that theory and aural apps have been around for a long time on PC and Mac, but the hold-it-in-your-hand immediacy of iPad makes it easier than it’s ever been to train during a practice session at home, or while waiting for a music lesson to start.
One of the better basic aural training apps I found was goodEar Pro, which allows students to test themselves on intervals, basic chords (major, minor, diminished and augmented, with inversions) and scales (including modes). Rather than working through preset exercises, the app allows the student to choose exactly what they want to be tested on, so they can tailor it to match exactly what they’re studying at school.
Rhythm Lab assesses in real time the accuracy of the student’s attempts at playing back the notated rhythm, while for drummers and pianists, the app also features drills that require the left and right hands to play different rhythms at the same time. Combine this with the ability to test hemiolas, compound tuplets, rests, ties, polyrhythms and less common time signatures such as 5/8, and this is an app that can challenge even experienced musicians, while being easy enough for beginners at its entry level.
Another intriguing entry for band programs is Time Trainer, which is a metronome with a difference: instead of ticking continuously, it can be set to randomly stop ticking for a few beats. The idea is that if the student is able to maintain a steady pulse of their own during that time, when the metronome resumes, they’ll still be with it.
Time Trainer also sports a feature where you can set it to very gradually speed up—say just 10 beats per minute over 15 minutes—helping students get passages up to speed without them even noticing.
Leveling up by drilling
Computer game developers have known for a long time that systems in which players can “level up” by completing tasks are not only motivating, but addictive…irrespective of how mundane those tasks might be otherwise.
So in World of Warcraft, for example, players will sometimes spend dozens of hours “fishing”, which involves hitting the same key over and over again while you wait to catch virtual fish. What keeps players going with this otherwise seemingly pointless task is a steady stream of leveling up feedback, confirming that they’re making progress with their fishing expertise. It sounds ridiculous. I dare you to try it for five minutes and try to stop though…
There’s one app (why only one???) that just might help students replicate this sort of tiered motivation system with tasks that actually help with their schooling. Levelmeup allows students to define a series of skills that they want to level up, and then will record how long students spend working on those skills, and automatically converts that time into progress towards their next level.
So a student who spends a single evening drilling their spelling words in a week might see their “spelling” skill grow from Level 1 to Level 2, while several sessions spent on their Italian Vocab might see their Italian skill go all the way to Level 4. You can set progress to be linear, so that every level has the same time requirements, or—as is usually the case in computer games—exponential, so that the first level is easy to obtain, but every level thereafter becomes progressively more difficult.
The whole thing is modeled on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours principle: whether or not you subscribe to that core idea doesn’t change the fact that more time spent drilling something often correlates to greater mastery*. Levelmeup manages to add an element of just…one…more…turn to the whole process; if you’re going to be involved in a process which is addictive like this, it might as well be for something useful.
*Not always. See my book The Practice Revolution for a tour of why more doesn’t always equal better when musicians practice.