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When “Hints” Hinder Learning, Part 1 of 3

If you’re using educational software or websites to help students learn and achieve, you’ve probably noticed that many of them have incorporated a “Hint” button for students to use if they get stuck or need help. Teachers in the classroom give students hints when necessary, so it’s not surprising that many digital learning programs also include this feature. DreamBox and other programs are designed so that students are able to work independently, and appropriate hints enable students to self-direct their learning.

As increasing numbers of digital learning programs are developed, educators are beginning to notice just how differently these programs design “hints” for students. When I was a K–12 math curriculum coordinator for a public school district, I scrutinized the hints within each product very carefully because they provided great insight into the pedagogy and assumptions used in the software. In the first part of this three-part post, I’ll share one of the most common hint approaches I’ve seen both in classrooms and in many digital math products, and why I believe these hints actually hinder student learning rather than enhance it. In part two, I’ll share another common hint design that also hinders learning. In the third and final part, I’ll share how DreamBox teachers design lessons so that the hints provide additional opportunities for students to think critically and make progress.

Flawed Hint Approach 1: Showing Students the “Next Step”

Because mathematics is often—and unfortunately—taught as a series of procedures and steps for students to follow and memorize, many educators and software designers give hints that simply show students what the “next step” in the process should be. For example if a student is solving the problem 301 + 199 and needs a hint, she might be told, “Line up the numbers by place value” or “1 + 9 = 10, so record a zero in the ones place and carry a 1 above the tens place.” At worst, I’ve actually seen programs implement this type of computational hint programmatically and algorithmically—without any human review. The result is that students can actually be shown incorrect math, such as giving students a hint such as 1 + 9 = 0. Such problems are clear evidence that the hints are generated by a computer program rather than by a qualified teacher. Apart from this problem, there are two other important flaws in this design and approach to hinting.

First, the student is expected to follow a suggested process without being given any opportunity to make any sense of the overall method. Even though the strategy might work, students aren’t doing any thinking of their own; and without thinking, there can be no learning or understanding. This type of hint reinforces the idea that math is simply a series of steps to remember.

Second, this design doesn’t take into account other possible solution strategies. In this instance, alternative first steps could have been, “Subtract 1 from 301 and add it to 199 to change the problem to 300 + 200” or “Add the hundreds values.” These hints still prevent students from doing the strategic and critical thinking for themselves, but they are equally valid approaches. But the point is that any “this is the next step no matter what” hint usually does too much thinking for the student—especially if the student can repeatedly use these hints to make progress and solve problems. Ultimately, this hint approach doesn’t help students with long-term learning or independent transfer.

Tim Hudson