TIMSS: Implications for technology use in teaching and schools

Written by: Maria Galvis & Dawson McLean | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We need to understand more about the effective use of technology in teaching, and invest in supporting teachers in its use. Maria Galvis and Dawson McLean looks at the practical implications for primary schools from the recent TIMSS findings

The Covid-19 pandemic has given fresh impetus to questions over the effective use of technology in teaching after schools were forced to pivot to online learning.

Previous evidence suggests that, on its own, higher technology use in the classroom is not necessarily associated with better pupil performance in maths and science. However, technology in teaching has taken on increased importance in light of the crisis, as classrooms with higher access and use of technology were likely in a better position to quickly engage with online teaching, potentially minimizing learning losses.

The 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data, collected before the onset of the pandemic and released in December 2020, showed where England stood in relation to its international peers on the integration of technology into learning for science and maths in year 5 classrooms.

Our analysis of the TIMSS findings (see further information) has helped provide clarity on where England stands in relation to its international peers on the integration of technology into teaching.

Despite continuing to be among the highest performing countries on the maths and science assessment, the data suggests that there may still be room to improve England’s standing in classroom technology use.

TIMSS allows us to look at pupil and teacher familiarity with computer use in the classroom, as well as professional development in incorporating technology into teaching, both of which likely played a role in enabling the transition to online learning.

Computer availability

In 2019, England was below the international average in classroom computer availability and use, and teachers had received less professional development in technology incorporation.

Although there was significant variation among countries, the average rate of pupils having access to computers in the classroom across the globe was relatively low. Internationally, 46 per cent of pupils had computers available to use in science lessons, and 39 per cent for maths lessons, falling to 36 and 32 per cent respectively in England.

Similarly, only 17.5 per cent of year 5 pupils in England had teachers who had received training in incorporating technology into their teaching of maths, while internationally twice as many pupils (34.6 per cent) had teachers who received similar training.

While having access to computers in the classroom does not necessarily imply effective use, using digital resources during lesson time allows students to familiarise themselves with technology, and to build the skills and routines necessary to use technology effectively for learning. TIMSS shows that not only did year 5 pupils in England have less access to computers compared to their international counterparts, fewer pupils also used computers on a regular basis.

Additionally, our previous research (Lucas et al, 2020) has shown pupil engagement in online learning to be key to minimizing learning loss, and that pupil engagement is higher for teachers who had received training in classroom technology usage.

Taken together, the TIMSS results suggest that, prior to the pandemic, comparatively low classroom computer access, usage and teacher training in England may have translated to a more challenging transition to online learning, and potentially a higher impact on learning loss.

Disadvantaged pupils

Classroom computer availability and use were also associated with socio-economic status. In England, pupils from more affluent schools were 34 percentage points more likely than their disadvantaged counterparts to have had access to computers for science lessons.

Similarly, for classroom computer use, pupils in more affluent schools were 57 percentage points more likely than their disadvantaged peers to have had teachers who use computers to support maths learning at least once per week.

These findings build on results from PISA 2018, which highlighted the gap in access to online learning between the most and least affluent schools – a gap which is larger in the UK than the OECD on average.

In the context of the pandemic, socio-economic gaps in computer availability and use may help to partially explain socio-economic gaps in pandemic learning loss, as we have documented before (Sharp et al, 2020).

However, on a positive note, no significant socio-economic gap was observed for teacher professional development participation, suggesting that pupils in more and less disadvantaged schools were roughly equally likely to have had a teacher that had received professional development in using technology in their teaching.

Teacher support

These findings should not be used to criticise teachers, who have every right to feel proud of what they have accomplished in pivoting so dramatically to online learning. But they need continuing support.

However, the pandemic has shown us how important it is that teachers have the professional development they need to effectively embed technology into their teaching practice. This is clearly true in the short-term while the pandemic continues to impact education, and where provision of ICT tools and technology training for teachers have the potential to help reduce learning losses from online learning for all pupils, regardless of their socio-economic background.

Indeed, the TIMSS results suggest that, prior to the pandemic, these supports were sorely needed, and the Department for Education (DfE) had already taken steps to address these gaps as part of its 2019 education technology strategy. This is a good step forward and should be accompanied by building a longer term understanding of the impact of technology on learning.

Digital divide

We also need more attention to be paid to the “technology gap” – making sure that schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils are able to provide the same access to technology, and exposure to its use in learning as their more advantaged peers.

In order to respond to the immediate challenges of pandemic-induced remote learning, the DfE provided hundreds of thousands of laptops to the most disadvantaged children, although more are still needed if we are to reach all those young people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

However, this should not be just a stop-gap solution, but rather part of a longer-term strategy to provide additional technological support in areas which need the most help.


Understanding what can impact the effective use of technology on learning, investing more in embedding technology in teaching practices, ensuring pupils have access to technology when needed, and that teachers know how to use it effectively, will prove invaluable in long term efforts to build more efficient education systems.

This will not just provide a short-term boost to remote learning, but could also contribute to future education technology strategies that can help tackle workload, accessibility, and inclusion challenges faced by the education sector.

  • Maria Galvis and Dawson McLean are economists at NFER.

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.