About the Researcher

David Dockterman

David Dockterman is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert at putting education research into practice. His work currently focuses on how technology can support personalized learning for individuals and groups. He has designed dozens of award-winning educational computer programs. See full bio

Not always — but the real potential may lie in enhancing engagement, not necessarily achievement

By David Dockterman

Superintendent Michael Nagler asked, “If we provided more student materials — worksheets, assignments, etc. — in a digital format, would that increase achievement?”

The short answer to the question is: probably not.

New technology may have a brief novelty appeal, but, after that, motivation is based on the engagement and value associated with an activity. A dry worksheet on the screen is still a dry worksheet.

However, digital technology can offer some affordances over paper that may increase learner engagement. I can think of two main ways technology can effectively increase engagement with the kind of tasks traditionally found on worksheets: giving feedback and tracking student performance.


Computers can provide immediate feedback. Now, not all feedback is created equal. Feedback that highlights characteristics of the user, like “You’re a genius,” can reinforce a fixed mindset — a belief that success is due to natural talent rather than effort. You want computers to offer feedback that instead reinforces the work that led to a correct response, or feedback that helps guide the learner to pathways to correct answers.

Right or wrong feedback is useful, but it’s not that helpful from a learning perspective unless it helps a student know why their answer was incorrect and what to do differently (or, in the case of a correct response, what to keep doing). Feedback for correct answers, from the teacher or the computer, should highlight the steps that led to success.

  • For example: “Good job re-reading the text.”

Feedback for incorrect answers should promote reflecting on the error. In some cases, the feedback might highlight the source of the error, leaving it to the learner to determine and make fixes. It other cases, it might suggest strategies for re-tackling the task.

  • For example: “Try reading the passage out loud.”

Feedback can also suggest ways to step up to new challenges.

  • For example: “You only learn when you challenge yourself. How about raising the level?”

Tracking Performance

Digital technology can use past performance and the performance of similar students to dynamically determine what item, task, or bit of instruction should come next. Technology with a little bit of smarts can help keep learners in their zone of proximal development, constantly challenged with tasks that are just a bit out of reach (the way games do). Completing those tasks can be very satisfying and motivating. Our brains reward us when we solve a challenge.

  • For example: A student who is doing well might advance more quickly to the next set of tasks. A student who is struggling might get a slightly lower reading level or simplified problem.

More sophisticated digital systems (with very well-designed tasks) might notice patterns.

  • For example: Inference is a trouble spot for some students. Word problems with unneeded numerical information consistently stumps others. Students with specific needs get more practice and support where needed.

The focus on learning can be reinforced by a focus on growth, and digital systems can display that growth graphically and immediately. That kind of progress feedback can be very motivating. We all like to see ourselves getting better.

  • For example: A multiplication program may have a feature which allows a student at any time to check her progress charted on a graph.

I’ve only scratched the surface of how technology can be leveraged to enhance motivation and learner agency. In general, you want to think about the overall learning environment and pedagogy. A problem-based approach that invites student choice and exploration, for instance, can be very engaging and well-supported by technology. That kind of shift is much bigger than transitioning existing materials to a digital format, but the impact will likely be greater as well.