September 2, 2020

Physical education: a mobile application validates and stimulates physical activity outside the classroom

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

This real life story is a translation of a text published in Profweb’s French edition.

Can free mobile applications such as Runkeeper and Runtastic help ensure that students in the 103 Physical Education class are engaging in the physical activity they are supposed to outside of class? This is what I believe after testing it with my students and studying the topic for my master’s essay [in French]. By also asking my students to send me pictures of themselves while they do their physical activity, I get authentic results and, most importantly, I make the course more motivating for the students.

The need to prove that the reported physical activity is genuine

The 3rd Physical Education course at the college level involves having the student plan, carry out and evaluate a personal physical activity program outside of class hours. The goal is for the student to incorporate regular physical activity into their lifestyle.

Traditionally, in order to evaluate program completion, the teacher requires a paper logbook in which the student documents the workouts they completed during the week. One of the problems with this logbook is that students can write whatever they want since they are not monitored by their teacher. Others write unintentionally false entries, due to misconceptions about physical activity or due to a poor memory.

How does this work?

To achieve more authentic results, I started using a mobile application. First, I worked with Runtasticthen with Runkeeper. They give similar results.

Screenshots from Runkeeper taken by the author are in French; however, both apps are available in English.

I ask students to use the application to keep track of their physical activity sessions. They must first install it on their phones. Then:

  • When a student starts a session, they open the application and select the activity they are going to do.
  • If the activity involves travel (running, cycling…), the application will record by geolocation:
    • route
    • distance travelled
    • duration
    • instant and average speed and rhythm
    • incline

    To save data on their cell phone plan, the student can put the device in airplane mode and reactivate it when there is Wi-Fi. If the student has to stay in one place (indoor training, tennis…) or cannot carry a phone (swimming) to do the activity, the application will:

    • time the activity
    • indicate the associated energy expenditure
    • keep a history of the sessions in the mobile application

    No equipment other than a smartphone is required. It is possible to add a heart rate sensor or a heart rate monitor to complement the data collected, but I do not ask my students to purchase them to save money.

  • The student also sends me selfies during the activity.
  • The student must also write comments after taking part in a physical activity:
    • “Describe your physical activity session.”
    • “Have you had any difficulties? If so, what solutions are being considered?”
    • “What is your goal for your next session?”

I’ve been using Runkeeper for 4 sessions. Only one student didn’t have a cell phone. He was able to use the web version of Runkeeper on a computer and took pictures with a camera. This didn’t allow him to track or geolocate his running or biking trips, but the benefits of photos, instant data sharing and my tracking of his sessions were still there, compared to the traditional paper statement sometimes corrected 1 or 2 times during the session.

Real-time monitoring

I ask students to add me as a “friend” in the application, so I get notifications when they finish a physical activity. This way, I can send them feedback quickly, which is really appreciated by the students. For example, I send them words of encouragement or guide them in achieving their goals. If I see that a student is making an activity choice that is not consistent with the goal they have set (for example, a student wants a flat stomach and chooses to do sit-ups), I can write to them quickly to correct their performance.

For my part, I also use the application when I work out and make my sessions visible to my students. The students’ perception of their teacher influences their success. Therefore, I find it relevant to show students that I also do the minutes of physical activity that I require them to do. I feel that seeing that I am involved in a sport “for real” on a daily basis has a positive impact on their perception of physical activity.

Students can also follow each other, if they wish. This is also motivating for them: a student might want to exercise when he sees his friend coming back from the gym.

The application allows students to take down readings electronically and instantaneously instead of on paper. Rather than being hastily completed a few hours before the deadline, the record is definitely more accurate.

Because I can track students in real time, I can quickly identify those who are having difficulties. I can work with them during class. I no longer have to wait several weeks before I know what activities the students are doing. I get to know the students quickly, which allows me to have a better relationship with them and to carry out better pedagogical interventions.

Students like using the application

Smartphones are a tool that physical education teachers didn’t have before. I think we should use them when they add value to our teaching.

For my master’s degree in education, I worked with a group of students who produced only paper records (control group) and a group of students who used their smartphone (experimental group). I administered an anonymous questionnaire to the students at the end of the session. The results confirmed both that, the activities reported by the students who used the application were significantly more authentic and also that the students liked using the tool.

Student responses (anonymous) to the question “During the 10 weeks of the personal physical activity program, did you complete the self-analysis questions based on your genuine participation in a physical activity?”
Yes, always. No, I misreported data a couple of times. No, I often misreported data. No, I quite often misreported data. No, I always misreported data.
Experimental Group 57,1% 14,3% 14,3% 9,5% 4,8%
Control Group 21,7% 47,8% 4,3% 13,0% 13,0%

71% of the students in the experimental group said that using a mobile application in physical education classes made physical activity more stimulating (19% did not believe so, 10% were undecided). In addition, 81% indicated that they liked having data on their physical activity.

Certainly, using an application in my course requires more work than correcting paper reports, since I have to follow up on a regular basis and it takes longer to do so. But it is so worth it! It positively transforms my relationship with my students. I know them better and, in return, they enjoy using the mobile application and are certainly more motivated to exercise outside of their physical education class. Even if I’m not there at the same time as they are doing their physical activity, I send them my feedback quickly, which creates a rapport between us.

A student told me that I was the first teacher to get her to exercise outside of gym class. So, it’s worth it!

About the author

Rachel Surprenant

Rachel Surprenant holds a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education from Université de Montréal and a Master of Education from Université de Sherbrooke. She has been teaching physical education at the college level for 8 years and has been a teacher at Cégep Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu for 5 years. To have students exercise more, Rachel explores different possibilities: technological tools, emotions felt during the activity, etc. Teaching remains a field that she finds inspiring, year after year.

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