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Improving mathematics learning in the early years: the use of interactive multimedia

Kristy Goodwin

Kristy Goodwin is Director of Every Chance to Learn. This article reports the key findings of her recently submitted doctoral study that investigated the role of interactive multimedia in developing young students' understanding of fractions. Based on these findings, she is currently preparing guidelines for pedagogical practice with interactive multimedia designed for young learners.

There is now a plethora of digital learning resources specifically designed to support mathematics learning in the early years of schooling (Buckingham, 2007; Edwards, 2006; Haugland & Wright, 1997). Recent Australian investments in technological infrastructure for primary schools include the installation of interactive whiteboards (IWBs), and the range of digital learning objects developed through The Le@rning Federation (TLF). In addition, many mathematics textbook publishers now provide interactive multimedia to complement their existing paper-based products.

Children enter primary school already familiar with technology and predisposed to learning with digital technologies (Downes, 2003; Downes, Arthur & Beecher, 2001; Dwyer, 2007). It would be easy to assume, then, that interactive multimedia is enhancing student learning by offering new ways to explain more abstract concepts. However, research has failed to keep pace with the growth in these technologies, and little is known about the extent to which multimedia resources support the teaching and learning of mathematics. There has been little research into the ways in which young primary students are using and responding to interactive multimedia, or about the impact of multimedia tools on early mathematics learning (Highfield & Goodwin, 2008). This paucity of evidence prompted the author to undertake a PhD study that examined the development of young students' understanding of fractions when using different types of interactive multimedia.

For the study, interactive multimedia were classified according to the degree of control they allowed students to have over a task. The categories were (i) instructive multimedia, where the learner completes prescribed tasks (for example, drill-and-practice CD-ROMs such as Galaxy Kids Maths CD-ROMs); (ii) manipulable multimedia, where the learner manipulates mathematical representations (for example, digital learning objects from TLF); and (iii) constructive multimedia, where the learner generates mathematical representations (for example, open-ended, multimedia-authoring tools such as Kid Pix and software from 2Simple). The study also focused on how eight high- and low-achieving case study students used and responded to the different types of multimedia.

The research examined the impact of an intervention where early years students used the three different types of interactive multimedia described above to further their understanding of mathematics. The participants were 86 students from three Kindergarten classes and one Year 1 class. An initial small-scale pilot study involved one Kindergarten class and one Year 1 class that both participated in a four-week intervention. A subsequent main study involved two Kindergarten classes. One of these classes took part in a 12-week intervention, while the other acted as a comparison class. Data were drawn from students' post-lesson mathematical drawings and a range of assessment tasks including a digital fraction assessment.

In addition to the above data sources, data in the form of video recordings and interviews were collected from four case study students (two low-achieving and two high-achieving) from each intervention class. The case study data were used in combination with the students' drawings and assessment task results to provide a more complete picture of the impact of the intervention.


The intervention students showed substantial improvements in their understanding of fractions. Their fraction-related drawings and their assessment achievement showed greater sophistication after the intervention. All of the students in the pilot study showed an improved understanding of fractions, while in the main study the intervention students had a more sophisticated understanding of fractions than the comparison group. These improved understandings could be seen in the structure of students' drawings, the mathematical concepts depicted and the inclusion of formal mathematical notation. Responses of students in the intervention group showed evidence of understanding advanced mathematical ideas, such as non-unit fractions, equivalent fractions, and counter-examples, and these students could successfully depict multiple representations. The students' level of understanding of fractions greatly exceeded current New South Wales Mathematics Syllabus expectations for Kindergarten and Year 1 students.

There were differences in the ways that the three different types of interactive multimedia influenced students' understanding of fractions. Students' understandings were the most advanced after using manipulable multimedia. In contrast, after using instructive multimedia, students were more likely to recall idiosyncratic, redundant and non-mathematical details. Their mathematical conceptions also tended to be 'crowded': their post-lesson drawings included superfluous details suggesting that their mathematical concepts were unclear. Students' conceptual representations were fewer and less developed after using constructive multimedia as the onus was on the student to depict the mathematical representation with the multimedia tools.

Case study data also indicated that manipulable multimedia had the greatest impact on students' understandings. These data also found that each multimedia classification type influenced the frequency with which students engaged with onscreen graphical representations and the ease of student experimentation with these graphical representations. Student engagement varied depending on the multimedia type, but was also influenced by the provision of instant feedback and by the design principles incorporated by the multimedia learning tools.

Differences were found between how low- and high-achieving case study students used the multimedia and how they recalled what had been presented onscreen. Rather than focusing on the mathematical content addressed by the multimedia, the low achievers tended to focus on the sound effects, animations and animated characters contained in the multimedia. These students also had a tendency to disregard feedback offered by the multimedia. In contrast, the high achievers were adept at selecting the salient mathematical information from the multimedia and were more likely to utilise feedback to remedy mistakes or misconceptions.


While interactive media can offer benefits to students in terms of improved conceptual understanding, students, and particularly low-achieving students, can be distracted by extraneous elements, such as sound effects, animations and animated characters, that may be found in multimedia programs. The findings emphasise the value of classroom approaches that focus students' attention on the intended mathematics learning but that also encourage students to share their maths-related discoveries. Multimedia designers should be encouraged to limit the use of distracting features in multimedia designs, and to provide opportunities for students to receive explicit feedback.

The author's doctoral study was supervised by Associate Professor Joanne Mulligan, Professor John Hedberg and Dr Marina Papic from Macquarie University.



Buckingham, D 2007, Beyond Technology: Children's Learning in the Age of Digital Culture, Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Downes, T 2003, 'Children's and families' use of computers in Australian homes', Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 3(2), 182–196.

Downes, T, Arthur, L, & Beecher, B 2001, 'Effective learning environments for young children using digital resources: an Australian perspective', Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 1, 139–153.

Dwyer, J 2007, 'Computer-based learning in a primary school: difference between the early and later years of primary schooling', Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 35(1), 89–103.

Edwards, S 2006, Early childhood educators' perceptions of developmentally appropriate interactive multimedia software. In P L Jefferey (Ed.), Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Australian Association of Research in Education. Retrieved May 16, 2007, from http://www.aare.edu.au/01pap/edw01068.htm.

Greenfield, S 2003, Tomorrow's People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Allen Lane.

Haugland, S W & Wright, J L 1997, Young Children and Technology: A World of Discovery, Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.

Highfield, K & Goodwin, K 2008, A review of recent research in early mathematics learning and technology. In M. Goos, R. Brown & K. Makar (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia. Navigating Currents and Charting Directions (Vol. 1, pp. 259–264). Brisbane, MERGA.

Prensky, M 2001, Digital Game-Based Learning, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Yelland, N J & Lloyd, M 2001, 'Virtual kids of the 21st century: understanding the children in schools today', Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 2001 (1), 175–192.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Primary education
Early childhood education
Multimedia systems
Mathematics teaching