A Free Learning App that Actually Works


meStudying_app_iconFor a few years now, I’ve been skeptical of the ever-growing wave of learning apps that use iPads and smartphones to teach math, language, art, and music.

As in, really skeptical.

While fantastically entertaining and beautifully designed, most of these apps fail what I’d call the Reality Test: they are inferior to learning the old-fashioned way, with your brain, body and the good old physical world. (Besides, as South Park wisely pointed out, there’s a slight but crucial difference between being skilled at Guitar Hero and being skilled at guitar.)

Then came last night.

Let me set the scene for you: it’s 10 p.m. and the temperature here in northeastern Ohio is approximately minus-478 degrees. School for tomorrow has been officially canceled. Jen and I are hanging out downstairs; the three girls are upstairs in full snow-day celebration mode, reveling in the unexpected late bedtime, the joy of no classes, pure freedom.

But something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. Then I hear a faint trumpet call, followed by yells of delight.

“What’s going on up there?” I ask. That’s when Jen tells me.

“They’re learning Spanish,” she says. “On an app.”

The truth tumbles out: the app (which is free) is called DuoLingo, and Jen has been secretly addicted for a few days, playing every spare moment. She’s already past 400 points, she tells me, and she can’t wait to get back to it, having just selected INSANE as her new daily level of practice time. And now it seems her new obsession has traveled, like a rogue virus, to the kids.

At first glance, DuoLingo doesn’t seem like much. You pick a level, and the a friendly voice poses a series of translation puzzles. Sometimes you are asked to speak a sentence. Sometimes you type what you hear, or pick the right translation from a series of options.

The secret to its appeal is the way it combines this sense of fun with smart individualized coaching. It nudges you to the edges of your ability and keeps you there, looping over material in various ways until you have it dialed in. Instead of tediously memorizing lists of words, you spend time solving tiny, engaging puzzles. Add in the razzle dazzle of medals, points, social competition and happy trumpets, and you’ve basically got a nutritional version of Candy Crush.

The other secret has less to do with the app and more to do with the nature of the skill itself. Language, unlike many other skills, is basically a massive interconnected ocean of information. DuoLingo works because it gives us space to splash around in that ocean, see what works, and repeat. It does exactly what a skilled coach does: creates a gamelike environment that keeps us reaching, over and over again, toward mastery. (Or, if you’re Jen, reaching for a reason to propose a family vacation to Spain.)

So does it work? Users (like this Slate writer) seem fairly ecstatic. I found this study (financed by DuoLingo’s parent company but conducted independently) showing that DuoLingo users learned the equivalent of a college semester in 34 hours. Around our house, the trash-talking has already started: Katie has promised to defeat her mother in the levels race.

So here’s the next question: What else am I missing? What other learning apps are useful? (Has anybody tried Coach’s Eye, for instance?) I’d love to start building a list of learning apps that actually work. Please feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments section below.

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29 Responses to “A Free Learning App that Actually Works”

  1. carie says:

    Been learning Italian for 30 days now! Totally addicted!!

  2. MickRR says:

    I’ve been “playing” languages on Memrise, currently Japanese.

    The site just hit 1 million users (up from 250k year before), and there’s 160,000+ courses available (not just languages). You can learn 499 different languages on the site.

    The practice sessions have statistics, so you can see if you’re hitting the 60-80% recall rate for the “goldilocks” deliberate practice zone.

    Memrise learning playing game-mode is modeled after Zynga, I believe. You can “play” against others by following them on the site.

    They have an app on Android and iPhone available, in addition to the online platform.

    Memrise was founded by Ed Cooke, who was featured in the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” (a book about accelerated learning), that’s how I found the site originally (googling Ed Cooke).

  3. June says:

    I do not play games like candy crush and, as you mentioned, have found very few “learning apps” to be true to form. Language learning is vital and it is hard to compete with fast paced, engaging games while teaching in the more traditional manner. We must all “monitor and adjust” to keep learning partners interested and actively engaged. I am very excited about this recommendation and look forward to others. I appreciate your interest and desire to compile a list of learning apps which might actually be useful for generalization. I really enjoy your work. Thanks so much!

  4. Jim Vance says:

    Thanks for this. I use Coach’s Eye, and it is a great app for interacting and teaching an athlete, but it doesn’t teach by itself. There is no puzzle or game to it. It is excellent at allowing a coach to isolate part of a movement and show the athlete the difference between what thy do and what they should do. The split screen to compare 2 videos directly is awesome! I really like the fact that I can coach athletes on their technical skills from anywhere in the world, if they just send me the video. Has truly changed my coaching business.

  5. Nate says:

    Coaches eye is a great feedback tool for coaches. Check out Ikkos for the iPad. It is built on the concept of neural pathway training, and I have had very interesting results (results very by athlete, but mostly positive) with learning motions in relatively short periods of time.

  6. Max says:

    In my experience so far, Duolingo has been great! Not only is it effective, but the goal of its creators isn’t actually to teach language – it’s to translate the world’s information. It works the same way as the reCAPTCHA in that it crowdsources translation of sentences found online. Teaching users the language along the way just happens to be the necessary input to getting lots of active users with knowledge of a language.


  7. Joe says:

    Are apps like Lumosity good?

  8. Andre says:

    I am a club volleyball coach and I have been using Coach’s Eye for a while now. It is a great tool to use in practice and be able to give instant feedback that the players can see for themselves on the ipad. Ubersense is another app that is similar to Coach’s Eye.

  9. Dawn says:

    I’ve been learning Portuguese on this app. My Brazilian friend is amazed!

  10. Lucas says:

    Coach’s Eye is awesome. Simple yet complete version of a video editing tool. You pick out your phone or tablet, take a video of your athlete (I coach swimming), and then review, record it with pointers and comments, and send it to the athlete, to view when and as many times as he can. I don’t know why a coach wouldn’t use it (or at least a similar app)

  11. Clark says:

    Coaches Eye

  12. bill dorenkott says:


    sorry it has been awhile since I have posted. i love coach’s eye and use it in conjunction with hudl. in hudl i have a video library of “correct” movements. I tape current athletes with coach’s eye then have them compare with the desired movement. in fact, i just did it today with one of our young ladies. as i was watching video with her on the pool deck our men’s coach was passing by and stopped to add an auditory cue (freestyle breathing…head and hand on breath…head then hand on recovery…spoken in a particular cadence). it was a magical moment and the athlete “got it”. it was visual, auditory and kinesthetic (as she got back in the water to “feel it”)

    there is a pretty cool movement in neuroplasticity (sp?) taking place in swimming. it is being led by a former coach, sean hutchison, and a company he founded called ikkos. it has applications in assisting individuals recovering from brain injuries, as well. we do a poor man’s version with coaches eye and hudl.

  13. John says:

    This is not necessarily an app, but it is really cool site that Google has created with Lego. Allows for creativity with no clean up.

  14. Jose says:

    I also use Doulingo to learn Portuguese and I am addicted to it…..
    check out Lumosity app and website

  15. Nate Knopf says:

    Coaches Eye is great, we use it in swimming for our iPads, the kids love seeing themselves on video.

  16. Nate Knopf says:

    Also if you want to be amazed with how fast kids learn download all the free “learning” apps on an iPad and let a 2 year old play with them. Easiest way to strain the winners from the losers.

  17. Mike Polonsky says:

    In your book Daniel you describe two types of coaches: 1)the master coach; and the 2) neighborhood coach who inspired passion. I remember reading about the kind piano teacher who provided a candy and who’s pupils loved her. Well, most of us are probably like her: committed but not elite trainers. Coach’s Eye is invaluable for us coaching hacks! It tries to level the playing field a little between us and the masters. It sees what the master coach sees, and allows us to give accurate instruction on real performance. The camera doesn’t lie. I hate to admit it, but the best coach on my kids hockey team that I coach is Coach’s Eye!

  18. Theresa Beeckman says:

    The Dartfish app for iPhone and iPad is like Coach’s Eye. I use it daily as I coach my setters. You can make notes and email the clip links to them while we’re all still in the gym once you’ve shown them the video. It’s awesome! Super easy to use too.

  19. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Mike — I love that idea, that the best coach is the camera. Sounds like Coach’s Eye is seriously useful.

    When it comes to the two coach types, there’s one more point: those categories are not fixed. The neighborhood coach can evolve!

  20. djcoyle says:

    Sounds fantastic, Bill — thanks for sharing that — especially the wonderful moment when the athlete “got it.” A few of those every week, and a guy could get addicted to coaching!
    I saw an early version of Ikkos with Sean Hutchison — looked promising a couple years ago. I’m eager to see what’s next there. And with this whole category.

  21. djcoyle says:

    Well said, June — thanks for that, and for your kind words. Much appreciated!

  22. Robnonstop says:

    For learning new physical activities I find the smart phone invaluable. I record a quick sequence from someone who already has the skill or from an online video or DVD, just filming the screen.

    I/we watch it several times and then try out the move while recording everything. Then it’s easy to compare the two and approach the correct version.

    The bonus: A documentation of how bad I was when I started. to show any newcomers who fear they don’t have enough talent because things don’t work perfectly from the start.

  23. Randy says:


    At our golf academy we use many apps, such as Coaches Eye, which engages the student so that more time is put into practice. Especially for junior golfers it becomes like playing a game and the quality of learning and performing becomes enhanced. Most of these apps have a method so an academy can “gift” the app to the student, such as Coaches Eye, so we can share easily between coach and student when they are not in front of us.

    Other apps we use is iVest which is the phone app for the K-Vest 3D motion system and GolfMTRX which is similar. One of the things that is great about the iVest app is as the student is going through their training they can have their favorite song play when they do the motion correctly.

    One more app that will be delivered the next couple days is from ZEPP Labs. ZEPP has developed a devices for golf, baseball and tennis that show hand path motion and other data in 3D. I am very excited to use this app.

    Thanks much and enjoy reading your books and the info on the site.

  24. Greg says:

    Ubersense is one of the best apps to provide feedback. It is a free app that allows for video recording and provides the coach the ability to send a video voice over to the athlete. I like it because the athlete can use the app to send the coach video to make sure the proper thing is being practiced independently. It allows for dialog between the coach and athlete which is something I haven’t found in other apps. Apps can be helpful as long as they are used the right way.

  25. Marcus says:

    I use three apps together for learning French, Duolingo, Memrise and Anki. They each have their benefits,

    Duolingo is great because everything is done for you. You just sign in and your entire course is scheduled. It is, like you described, easy enough for a kid to use and learn from.

    Memrise requires finding the course you want, and they are of varying quality but some are very good. It moves at a slower pace but I find teaches each concept more thoroughly before moving on. My recall level with things learned in Memrise is very high and it is the only one of the three that feels effortless.

    Anki is the hardest to set up and maintain but is also very, very effective. SRS flashcards just work. I have learned 400 words in the last 30 days (15 – 25 minutes a day) and can recall *all* of them. That’s far better than I’ve done with other flashcard methods.

    Looking forward to seeing what everyone else recommends.

  26. Tad says:

    I have used Ubersense and Coach’s Eye, but the app that I use most for video replay is BaM Video Delay. I coach volleyball and pole vaulting, and as the app name suggests, it allows athletes to view a skill on video after they perform. In pole vaulting I just setup a tripod with my iPad, and after they are done, they view their jump. You can delay the video as long or as short as you like.

  27. Trying to learn Mandarin at the moment, while living in Taiwan, and using apps for the first time. Not a replacement for in-person teaching and daily attempts at conversation, but fantastic for having a half-dozen ways each day to playfully practice learning to read and write, characters, hear and select tones, find translations, create flashcards. Favorites include Skritter (for writing Chinese characters), Pleco, Nemo. I wish these things were available 10-20 years ago when my focus was on Spanish!

  28. braconiais says:


    You should download a new project from the creators of memrise. It’s called CATSPANISH, only disponible in appstore and android store.

    It is more or less the same as duolingp, but much more well done and really trains you. The app is only disponible to learn spanish.

    These kinds of app just appear and are very popular to now learn languages, but i’m really interested of learning something else. if u know some..

  29. Keri says:

    There are literally hundreds if not thousands of great learning apps out there and the effects of the apps can be seen in numerous studies in the areas of blended learning, gamification, and several others. With your background in sports and its neural correlations, I believe you would find the topic of interest. I have enclosed a link to a infograph about gamification and a website with article, it should get you started. 🙂




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