School & District Management

Do Digital Games Improve Children’s Math Skills?

By Madeline Will — May 16, 2017 6 min read
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In Gregory Smith’s 5th grade class in Tampa, Fla., two girls are beating the majority of their class in an online math-strategy game.

That is remarkable given the original disparity between the two students: The girl who is No. 1 on the class leaderboard scored a level five—indicating mastery—on Florida’s state test in math last year. The other girl, who is No. 3 on the leaderboard, had scored a level one on the state test.

“When they played each other at first, the student at level five [on the state test] won almost every time,” Smith said. “Over the last month, it has been a very close split between the two young ladies.”

The students have been playing the online game since January. Sometimes, the girls play against each other and sometimes they play against the computer, Smith said.

"[The student who scored a level one is] doing math that’s harder because she’s playing with a friend,” he said.

That sort of increase in student achievement is what educators in the Hillsborough County school system are hoping to see with the adoption of TiViTz, a math-strategy game that covers concepts from single-digit addition to multiplying and dividing by percentages.

Smith, who teaches at Witter Elementary, which is part of Hillsborough, conducted an informal study that found that after four months of playing TiViTz games online, his students’ math-skills scores went up significantly, from an average of 49 percent to 83 percent. The students enjoyment of math also nearly doubled, by their own ratings.

“I’ve seen enthusiasm in some of the children who normally didn’t do as well, paper-to-pencil, but when they’re doing it because of the game, they’re doing better at it,” he said.

“If you don’t like something, you’re definitely not going to do well in it. And if you don’t think you’re going to do well, you’re definitely not going to do well,” Smith continued.

That’s the philosophy behind digital math games, whether they’re played online or through an app. Many educators and researchers say the games can help students both improve their math skills and enjoy math more. Nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers report using digital games for instruction, according to a 2014 study by the Games and Learning Publishing Council, a project of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

As long as these digital games are meaningful and motivating to children, they can have a real impact on learning, said Douglas Clements, a professor of early-childhood learning at the University of Denver, who has studied the effectiveness of digital math games.

Digital games allow students to take an active role in their learning and see the visual connection between the game play and the math. The games also provide constant positive or corrective feedback that is “really hard for teachers to provide to individual kids,” Clements said.

And while there has been some pushback, especially in the early years, against students having too much screen time, Clements said the research shows that children don’t need to play the games for hours to see results.

“We have found that a focused five-to-15 minutes, just a couple times a week, can make a big difference for kids,” he said.

Gathering Research

The 206,800-student Hillsborough district is now expanding on Smith’s informal study by looking at all 148 elementary schools and matching classrooms that are playingthe digital game with those who aren’t. The paired groups will have similar student demographics, so the district can get a better sense of how the game is improving student outcomes, said Larry Plank, the district’s director of K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education.

The district is also looking at whether the improved math performance shows up on state assessments as well as the district’s formative assessments, he said.

And this summer, the district will conduct a study across approximately 50 K-8 after-school programs to gather data on digital games’ use in that context, Plank said.

SAS Games, which makes TiViTz, is not paying for the study or otherwise involved, said Siobhan Mullen, the company’s CEO. That’s key to producing trustworthy results, she and other game company executives said.

“I know from personal experience that games play a role in engagement. ... [But] the only way I know they work is by running a large, controlled study in the field,” said Vadim Polikov, the CEO and founder of Legends of Learning, which creates digital games for middle school science and other subjects.

Legends of Learning recently partnered with researchers from Vanderbilt University to test the effectiveness of an 8th grade U.S. history digital game. Over 1,000 students participated across seven states. Thirteen teachers each taught two sections of 8th grade U.S. history: One section would receive the teacher’s regular instruction, and the other used curriculum-aligned games forat least half of class time.

After three weeks, both sections were tested, and students who had played the games outperformed their peers at a statistically significant level.

In addition to learning that student outcomes increased, the researchers found that both students and teachers enjoyed the games. Teachers reported that their students were more engaged while using the game, and that the games were easy to incorporate into the existing curriculum.

The digital-math-game company Motion Math was born out of a research project by Stanford University graduate students. The company, which develops games for students in kindergarten through 6th grades, has since worked with a researcher to study the efficacy of the games.

That peer-reviewed study, published in 2013 in the journal Games and Culture, tracked 122 Los Angeles 5th graders who played Motion Math’s fraction game for five days for 20 minutes each day. The students improved by 15 percent on their fractions estimation, and 10 percent in their attitudes toward fractions, based on standardized-test items.

A Bright Spot for Girls

One of the early findings in the Hillsborough County district’s adoption of TiViTz is that 55 percent of the players and many of the top winners are girls like two of the top scorers in Smith’s class.

As research shows that girls are typically more anxious about math than boys, “thatdid raise an eyebrow or two,” Plank said. “I think it’s an engaging, fun way [to learn math] that is nonthreatening, because it’s utilized in a very social manner—students play each other one-on-one.”

Motion Math CEO Jacob Klein said his company consciously chooses female characters for the games, and stays away from the “violent tropes of video games.” Students can choose avatars in their play that reflect their gender and skin color.

Since the math gender gap widens as students progress through school, Klein said, “early grades are a great time to build up almost a reserve in interest and skill.”

That’s critical for both genders, SAS Games’ Mullen said, since there are not enough people in the pipeline to meet the demand in the STEM fields.

“If we focus on elementary math, we could catch them before they drift away and decide they don’t like it,” she said. “Show why [math] is relevant to their future world and make it part of their current world.”

“We shouldn’t look to old media such as a paper-and-pencil quiz as the arbiter of knowledge,” Klein said. “If a student can do something smartly in a digital environment, that matters, that counts. Even if they can’t yet introduce that in paper and pencil, that doesn’t lessen the skill. ... It’s just a different place for knowledge.”

Coverage of early-math education is supported in part by a grant from the CME Group Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as Do Digital Learning Games Improve Young Students’ Mathematics Skills?


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