Duolingo: How I put my findings into practice in MFL

To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2021). Duolingo: How I put my findings into practice in MFL, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

As part of my PGCE at the University of Exeter, in 2020 I carried out a research project at my placement school that focused on the issue of low student motivation in Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). As a potential remedy for this issue, I analysed the potential of the online language-learning platform Duolingo for improving student motivation in MFL. You can read the original research article here.

Both the literature review and the primary research I carried out made clear that competition and gamification (making educational activities into games) had the potential to boost motivation in language-learning. It was clear that Duolingo could be incredibly effective at motivating students to continue using Duolingo, but my research at the time did not prove whether or not this motivation would feed into greater levels of motivation in class.

Nonetheless, I argued that, theoretically, using Duolingo (for example as part of students’ homework) could positively affect their motivation in class by improving perceptions of their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), their expectancies (Eccles et al., 1983) and their academic self-concept by helping them to achieve higher grades and test scores (Marsh, Byrne, & Yeung, 1999, cited in Hulleman et al. 2016). Since using Duolingo implies learning and learning creates better outcomes in lessons, I believed (and still do) that this upwards cycle could create a more positive self-fulfilling prophecy (Marsh and Martin, 2011) and ultimately cultivate greater intrinsic motivation for learning languages.

My research left me with two things clear:

1) Duolingo should be considered as an effective, fun and free tool available to teachers to increase student motivation in MFL.

2) The key is in how Duolingo is presented to students, how it is used for homework, and how the ‘competitive energy’ it creates is harnessed.

Starting at a new school as a Newly Qualified Teacher in September 2020, I have used Duolingo with all of my French and Spanish classes. Whilst I wouldn’t claim to have perfected how I use it to boost motivation and learning outcomes, I have had greater success than I did in my initial pilot study.

How have I used Duolingo to motivate, support and boost learning outcomes?

First of all, I started using Duolingo as compulsory homework. In my initial study, I found that it was essential that students had enough contact time with the app or website for them to ‘get hooked’. They need to be made to use it (as a compulsory task) until they experience the ‘rewards’ (gaining XP/points, unlocking new categories, moving up the ‘leagues’, gaining ‘crowns’ and unlocking ‘achievements’). The longer they are made to use it in class or as compulsory homework, the more likely they will continue to use it independently.

In my initial study, one week I set homework to a Year 10 French class to gain 60XP. The average amount of XP they actually gained was 662XP, over ten times the required amount. The highest amount was 2292XP, equating to over 18 hours of independent French study. The key is to get the students to experience the rewards of Duolingo enough that they will then continue beyond what is compulsory.

This is an example of how I set Duolingo for homework

Next, I created what I call the ‘Duolingo Leaderboard’. Once a week, I check to see who has done the most Duolingo in their class and I write their name on a section of my whiteboard dedicated to this, along with the amount of XP they have gained. The top student from each class gets congratulated and awarded with a ‘house point’ in lesson. The idea here is that the winning student’s rewards from the app (such as the XP and whatever achievements they may have unlocked) is supplemented by a tangible school-based reward (the house point) and a status-based reward (the kudos of being named ‘winner’ in front of their peers). I later added in a ‘Star of the Week’ element to this, naming the student who came top of all of my classes, not just their own. This student would get three house points, motivating students to aim even higher.

With this second stage, the key is to base the leaderboard on weekly scores only. I quickly discovered in my PGCE study that once a student is sufficiently far ahead of their peers in terms of their all-time XP, they lose all motivation to continue (Aesop’s Fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” comes to mind). Similarly for the others, seeing the ‘star student’ is so far ahead can also cause them to ‘give up’ on the competition. Making it a weekly leaderboard means that every student starts each week on 0XP, meaning the ‘losers’ get another chance to become the ‘winners’ and the previous ‘winners’ are at no advantage. This seems to be the key to creating ‘healthy competition’ for all.

Step three: At the end of the first term, in mid-December, I decided to take the weekly leaderboard to the next level as an optional ‘Duolingo Xmas Challenge’. The idea was that students would have from the last day of school in December to the first day back in January to gain as many XP as possible. They would receive 1 house point for every 250XP they completed. This challenge was extended to mid-January due to school closures, giving student one calendar month to complete it. Awarding a house point for every 250XP ensures students are not de-motivated by seeing other students so far ahead, as they can still gain more rewards by continuing to use Duolingo.

Due to being an entirely optional challenge, engagement could have been better. However, I would nonetheless consider it a great success that seventeen students completed more than 250XP each over this period, which equates to an average of 18 lessons each, or approximately 3.6 hours of language learning per student. However, many students gained much, much more than 250XP. The student that came in first place gained 6887XP, completing 341 lessons and spending over 60 hours using Duolingo. The student that came in second place spent around 40 hours learning Spanish during the holidays. Finally, in third place, a Year 11 student completed 192 French lessons and spent somewhere in the region of 35 hours on Duolingo, great preparation for January mock exams!

With school closures extended at least until February half-term and with the success of this first ‘Duolingo Challenge’, I am starting a second ’round’ to the challenge. With the desire to motivate more students to take part, I have informed all of my students of the winners and made them aware of how many house points they have won. Again, with everyone starting at 0XP, it will be a chance for different students to make first place and gain not only a great many house points (like gold dust in our school), but to get the kudos of being ‘champion’.

Of course, as I concluded in my original research, I have yet to measure the translation of time spent on Duolingo into better learning outcomes and attainment in school. However, research carried out by Vesselinov and Grego (2012) found that for native English speakers with no previous knowledge of Spanish, an average of 34 hours of Duolingo usage would give similar results to an 11-week university semester of study. Theoretically, it seems obvious that if a student frequently spends several hours on Duolingo of their own volition, what they learn will support them in lessons and, subsequently, feeling successful in lessons is likely to improve their motivation for, and enjoyment, of the subject.

In order to use Duolingo to its full potential in the ways I have mentioned, it is necessary for teachers to register for a free account on Duolingo for Schools. This enables teachers to create virtual ‘classrooms’ for their classes, to set up accounts for their students or to give students a code to join the virtual classroom from their own account, as well as to monitor activity and thus run the ‘leaderboard’.

I would recommend allowing students to create their own account using their personal email (if they have one), and to download the Duolingo app on their own smart phone (if they have one). This is because they are more likely to see notifications and emails from Duolingo reminding them to complete their daily practice and congratulating them on their weekly performance, valuable elements in the motivational cocktail that the platform’s creators have developed.

I consider my own trials and testing of this to be very much in progress, and as such I may have further updates in the future as I continue to improve the efficacy of my approach.

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