Under what conditions do digital tools help students succeed?


To feel competent, autonomous and socially integrated: these are the three fundamental needs of students that must be met if we want them to be able to learn effectively. In any case, this is what the psychology of education teaches us, and these needs are involved in the motivation and well-being of students.

The closure of universities and educational institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive use of digital tools in teaching and learning. At the end of this period, the teachers have not put these computer tools and skills away. On the contrary, hybrid education (combining face-to-face and online activities), which has already been gaining momentum for several years, has become even more entrenched in the university landscape.

What adjustments are needed to continue to meet student expectations? How can digital tools meet their needs to support their success  ?

Feel competent

Research has long shown the positive influence of formative feedback, that is, feedback that aims to inform students of the level at which they are at rather than grading or classifying them. This feedback can be given following exercises, work or activities carried out as part of the course, and digital tools make it possible to automate them. For example, it is possible to carry out MCQs, fill-in-the-blank exercises, association or classification exercises and provide feedback to students based on their answers.

Feedback can include the correct answer with an explanation or additional information, but can also refer students to specific sections of the course. They are all the more effective as they contain information.

This approach allows students to become aware of the gaps that exist between the targeted learning objectives and the current state of their knowledge and guides them in the actions to be taken to fill these gaps. Therefore, formative feedback reinforces self-regulation and enables students to manage their own learning. They can thus observe their progress thanks to evaluations without academic stake, and research shows that this mechanism can promote a positive perception of their skills.

Offering this type of online activity to students also transforms their relationship to error. Students are less afraid of making mistakes when doing exercises online because when they make a mistake, it’s easier for them to go back and start over, over and over again. In addition, receiving negative feedback from a machine rather than from the teacher somehow erases the associated social pressure. Under these conditions, making errors would have little deleterious effect on students’ sense of competence.

Feel autonomous

Studies suggest that to meet this need for autonomy, it is necessary to mobilize the intrinsic motivation of students, in particular by emphasizing the interest of the content taught, by promoting a deep understanding of it and an explanation of the links with professional practice . . Again, digital tools can support this sense of performing tasks by personal choice, not coercion. Thus, teachers may consider:

  • provide students with management tools – calendar, schedule, automated reminders – allowing them to have an overview of the course and structure their learning;
  • make essential resources available from the start of the course – allowing them to work and progress at their own pace;
  • allow students to record the traces of their learning – ePortfolios, possibility of annotating documents, highlighting them, adding bookmarks, etc.
  • provide personalized learning plans based on student knowledge – individualization or differentiation of learning.

A track that can also be examined is the implementation of gamification elements in lessons, such as levels to be reached or challenges… In gamified devices, students tend to choose more difficult tasks and submit work higher quality, reflecting greater intrinsic motivation.

To feel socially integrated

Interpersonal exchanges were sorely missed by students and teachers during the school closures caused by the pandemic and digital interactions ultimately made up very little for the lack of face-to-face interactions. When the teachers gave their lessons by videoconference, they had “the impression of speaking in a vacuum”  : the majority of the students cut off their camera and their microphone, uncomfortable at the idea of ​​showing themselves in front of all the other students.

However, in the context of hybrid teaching, digital tools can be a way of extending or even generating face-to-face interactions, especially when teachers are addressing large cohorts of students. Indeed, collaborative tasks, the organization of debates, the realization of projects or tutoring activities represent activities that are difficult to set up with groups of more than fifty students.

On the other hand, these activities can be facilitated by the use of different tools: collaborative spaces with shared documents, instant discussion channels allowing text, voice or video exchanges, asynchronous discussion forums.

In addition to their own interest, setting up this type of activity and offering students to interact remotely can allow them to integrate and belong to a group – a promotion, a work group or even a friends group. Even if it takes place above all face-to-face, the need for social proximity can thus be reinforced in different ways.

Obstacles to take into account

The research makes it possible to identify avenues to support the needs of students, but also raises tensions related to the transformations of teaching practices. Already before the multiple confinements, the reluctance of teachers to use digital tools was very present.

Teachers are not necessarily trained in these tools and they develop a low sense of self-efficacy in their use and in computing in general. In some cases, they do not conceive their usefulness. This sentiment, coupled with sometimes disastrous experiences during the pandemic, only weakens the use of technology by teachers.

Despite everything, 60% of teachers (40% in Belgium, 45% in France) follow professional training on the use of digital tools, which shows that, despite the obstacles, teachers are taking charge of their professional development in this area.

If we still doubted it, the “digital natives” , these young people who have not known the world without the Internet, are not naturally endowed with particular computer skills. Even when they have access to the necessary material, they sometimes lack instrumental skills (effective use) or strategic skills (searching, sorting and evaluating information) . Thus, the use of digital tools in the classroom requires taking into account their basic needs, but also guiding them in their use. Showing students how to navigate institutional platforms to reach exercises and resources will save them time and avoid frustration.

Author Bio: Margault Sacre is Doctor in Psychology and Education Sciences at the University of Liège