Gaming That Leverages Engagement, Mindset and Design

I’ve always liked, and previously written about math games like Wuzzit Trouble and MIND Research Institute’s ST Math. They are two of the few math games available that do NOT qualify as “chocolate covered broccoli” (a common name for educational video games that are just thinly disguised worksheets rather than engaging games.)

What I love most about gaming and these apps as a math mom and gamer mom is that the games have real objectives that are directly aligned with the game play mechanics and that learning math is a side effect, not direct goal, of playing the game.

ST Math is a non-symbolic and non-verbal game that helps students develop a grounded intuition about math such as fractions and algebra. They demonstrate results in math growth 2-3 times that in comparable schools without ST Math.

Wuzzit Trouble came out in 2013 and the whole family, from my 10-year-old daughter to my mom enjoyed playing. My son became engrossed with getting a perfect score, but even though the game is deceptively easy at the beginning, it eventually becomes delightfully wickedly hard. I always felt my kids’ mathematical skills improved with game play, but now there is also a research study from Stanford that supports that conclusion.

In fact, the results were so startling (even to the Wuzzit Trouble team) that much of the research white paper is dedicated to how the work was rigorously conducted and validated, though admittedly of small sample size. In the words of the teacher involved with the study,

“Along the lines of achievement. My 5th period class, which is involved in the study, is an inclusion class with students with learning disabilities. On the last quiz I gave, the percentage of students receiving an A or B grade in this class was [only] one percentage less than those receiving an A or B grade in my Honors class which is filled with students in the gifted and talented program and my school’s science magnet program. When I shared the results with my 5th period they attributed their success to how hard they had been working to learn the math. Before the study, these same students had the lowest achievement on a quiz and attribute their low scores to their ability, using phrases like, “We’re the dumb class”

How can gaming for a few hours over the course of two months have such a dramatic impact? The researchers suggest 3 mechanisms that research has shown can have a significant effect.

  1. Student engagement. Engagement is known to be a significant factor in learning. A well-designed video game creates a deep level of engagement rarely generated in a typical mathematics classroom.
  2. Mindset. Players in a video game quickly learn to adopt an iterative approach involving exploratory trial-and-error, reflection on failure, and subsequent adaptation. This results in a positive, “can do” attitude that Stanford researcher Carol Dweck demonstrated has an enormous effect on performance.
  3. Game design. A well designed video game will lead to rapid, deep acquisition of whatever skills are intrinsically required to succeed in the game. A key word in that sentence is intrinsic. As Gee, Devlin, and others have observed, in order for a good video game to yield significant learning of X, the game has to be built tightly around X — essentially, the game mechanic has to be a dynamic representation of X. DragonBox does that with symbolic algebra (solving single variable, linear equations); Wuzzit Trouble does it with integer arithmetic, general problem solving skills, and algorithmic thinking. Few other video games adopt this approach.

I have to wonder if there isn’t a fourth.

The games are rigorous and, like any real game, easy to start but challenging at the higher levels. The kind of mathematical thinking and rigorous logic required is demanding and yet qualifies as “hard fun.” It’s hard and it’s fun – the best kind of learning experience.

I question if it is even possible to participate in such engaging yet rigorous work without improving overall reasoning skills. Obviously, further research would be required to address that question academically, but as a parent I am already convinced.

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