Research foundations

IXL Math: Summary of Foundational Research

IXL Math is a product of IXL Learning, Inc. (formerly Quia Corporation), which has been a leader in Web-based educational software solutions for more than a decade. IXL Math was conceived in 2005 and was researched, discussed, designed and re-designed up until its launch in 2008. The question we asked at every turn was simple—how can a computer program help students to learn and retain math skills? For the answer to this question, we examined the latest academic research on education best practices and applied these findings carefully and thoughtfully to the design of IXL Math.


At the core of any math program is its content—the actual math problems it presents to a child as practice and reinforcement. IXL's goal is to help students gain true understanding of a concept, thus ensuring long-term skill retention. In this spirit, we considered a vast amount of academic research on how children learn.

Experts submit that successful math instruction requires a strong basis in the fundamentals, as a lack of fluency in simple arithmetic functions is detrimental to the understanding of more challenging concepts, including fractions and decimals. The best method for developing these basic skills is practice. “For all content areas, practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills...which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving” (National Mathematics Advisory Panel). With this in mind, IXL offers a multitude of practice skills designed to develop students' basic arithmetic skills. Furthermore, IXL opted to forgo the traditionally accepted question-bank content model and computer-generates all questions—this ensures that every student has an infinite number of problems with which to hone their skills.

Once basic arithmetic fluency is achieved, established best practices call for the carefully charted progression from easier to more difficult skills. “Students learn by building on prior knowledge, extending as far back as childhood” (National Math Advisory Panel). In accordance with this tenet, IXL offers hundreds of math categories, each of which is broken down into more easily managed skills. Each category begins with the fundamental computational skill needed to understand the concept at hand. Categories on IXL then progress from simpler applications to more challenging ones. For example: In IXL's second grade category on money, skills progress logically from the simple skill of identifying currency, to counting money, to comparing currency value, to money-related word problems, to real-world applications of these skills.

In addition to its impact on the breadth and structure of IXL's content, our research had a marked influence on the actual substance of IXL's math problems. Variety is a crucial element in mathematics, as “[k]nowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context” (National Research Council). In accordance with scientific research, IXL incorporates:

  • “extensive use of appropriate objects, diagrams, and other aids” in the content for younger students (National Research Council).
  • the desirable combination of graphics and words in all grade levels (SEG Research).
  • an unmatched level of variety in question types, IXL math problems range from typed responses to multiple choice, from word problems to interactive graphing problems--which are a particular innovation shown to improve students' cognitive understanding (Jacobs).
  • real-world problems, which are proven to enhance students' ability to understand topics and even improve performance on assessments with similar problems (National Math Advisory Panel).


A vast number of researchers have come to emphasize the role of assessment in improving the learning experience for students. IXL's SmartScore assessment system was built on the premise that the most effective form of assessment is ongoing assessment. “...[E]ffective teachers employ formative assessments at the beginning of instruction to determine prior knowledge, and they assess regularly throughout the unit or course of study to obtain information to help them adjust their teaching based on the learning needs of students” (McTighe and Ferrara). IXL's design embraced this principle by incorporating SmartScore, a proprietary algorithm that assesses student understanding on an ongoing basis. By considering factors like problem difficulty, accuracy, and consistency, SmartScore is able to record students' retention level and ultimately give teachers the best possible metric for evaluating performance. Furthermore, by setting a high bar for the achievement of mastery (a SmartScore of 100), students are encouraged in having "mastery-oriented goals," which is shown to increase effort and result in a greater degree of long-term math achievement (National Math Advisory Panel).

In addition to providing real-time assessment data to teachers, IXL provides ongoing feedback and instruction assistance to students, which studies show is the most effective method for keeping students engaged and correcting misconceptions (SEG Research).


The question of delivery was carefully considered in the development of IXL, as format plays a large role in determining the ultimate effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, the research available led to the implementation of IXL's Web-based, 24-7 access model. The most compelling reason to create an exclusively computer-based program was the overwhelming positive effect that technology has on student achievement. Overall, studies confirm that the use of technology in the classroom helps students learn more concepts in less time (Schacter). This is due to the multi-dimensional instruction that technologies can provide—using tools like visual and interactive representations of math concepts, computer programs can give students new perspective on math, which ultimately leads to better understanding of abstract concepts (Jacobs). Web-based technologies in particular have been cited as having a positive impact on student learning. Because of the flexibility and independence offered to online learners, Web learning can result in improved critical thinking and overall computer skills (NACOL Research Committee).

Another factor supporting the decision to make IXL Web-based was the breadth of studies showing that students who learn math using technologies have more fun learning math. They often demonstrate improved attitudes toward learning in general (Heinecke, Milman and Washington). In particular, the immediacy of Web-based programs is shown to have a tremendous impact on learning because they can offer instantaneous feedback to students and their teachers (SEG Research).

In addition to its obvious benefits for students, one more appealing quality of the Web-based format is that updates and improvements can be easily delivered to the user. This way, as methodology and curricula are rethought and changed, IXL can easily change right along, and continue to provide a program that represents the culmination of the best practices in the field of mathematics education.

Works Cited and Consulted

Heinecke, W. F., Milman, N. B., Washington, L. A., Blasi, L. (2002) New Directions in the Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Educational Technology. Computers in the Schools, v18 n2 p97-110.

Jacobs, K. L. (2005). Investigation of interactive online visual tools for the learning of mathematics. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 36: 7, 761-768.

McTighe, Jay & Ferrara, Steven. (1998). Assessing Learning in the Classroom. National Education Association. Washington, DC.

NACOL Research Committee. (2007). NACOL Effectiveness of K-12 Online Learning,

National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (2008). Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, DC.

National Research Council. (2001). Improving Mathematics Education: Resources for Decision Making. Committee on Decisions that Count, Steve Leinwand and Gail Burrill (Eds.). Mathematical Sciences Education Board, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Schacter, John. (1999). The Impact of Education Technology on Student Achievement: What the most Current Research Has to Say. Milken Exchange on Education Technology: Santa Monica, CA.

SEG Research. (2008). Understanding Multimedia Learning: Integrating multimedia in the K-12 classroom. New Hope, PA.

Smith, David A. (2002). How People Learn... Mathematics. Proceedings of the International Conference on the Teaching of Mathematics. Crete, Greece.

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