Which Mobile App Feedback and Leveling Designs Best Scaffold Preschool Learning?

March 2, 2019

Melissa Callaghan and Stephanie Reich present Which mobile app feedback and leveling designs best scaffold preschool learning? the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting in March 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland.


Educational scaffolding is the use of guiding hints and gradual increasing challenge to help learners develop skills beyond what they would achieve independently (Vygotsky, 1978). Years of developmental research have examined this within face-to-face interactions, finding that when experts (e.g., parents) scaffold novice child learners, those children learn more than non-scaffolded children (Hsin & Wu, 2011). The interactive and adaptive capabilities of digital tablets allow educational applications (apps) to mediate learning through similar scaffolded designs. However, little research has tested the effects of scaffolding apps on young children’s learning.

This two-part study, with 240 predominantly low-income preschoolers (4-5 years), experimentally tested how an app with scaffolding feedback and leveling designs impact children’s novel word learning. The game app used was specially designed for this experiment and, in the game, children were introduced to differently colored and shaped aliens with novel names, such as purple, triangle-shaped aliens named Mickets. Children were then asked to sort each alien type onto a spaceship. As a 3×2 between-subjects design, this study tested how three types of app feedback – non-verbal (sounds), verbal encouragement (e.g., “Great job”), or scaffolded verbal (e.g., “You selected the green Plickatoo!”) – influenced children’s learning of three novel alien names, and how scaffolded leveling (gradual challenge) impacted children learning of three additional novel alien names compared to random order challenge.

ANCOVA results showed that sounds feedback led preschoolers to work faster [F(2,240)=3.44, p<0.05], while the scaffolded feedback was best for increasing preschoolers’ accuracy [F(2,120)=4.98, p<0.01]. This benefit of scaffolded feedback was particularly strong for children who began playing the app with feedback tasks, rather than receiving prior training from the leveling tasks. This suggests that the effect of scaffolded feedback is especially useful when learners receive scaffolded guidance from the beginning of educational app play. Moreover, scaffolded challenge supported faster and more accurate responses than random order challenge [p<0.001; see Table 2]. Ultimately, it appears that scaffolding in educational apps, via feedback and leveling, can provide promising results for preschool learning, aligning with what previous researchers have recommended for teaching young children in face-to-face settings (Hsin & Wu, 2011). These findings provide meaningful guidance for future digital app design to truly support early childhood learning.