By Jane Moorman
NMSU researchers show how games can increase math understanding
The use of computer animations and games in conjunction with effective, teacher-guided written work and activities leads to increased student understanding of mathematical concepts, according to a study being conducted by New Mexico State University’s College of Education.
The NMSU researchers are working on a National Science Foundation grant called Math Snacks.
“Mobile technologies increase teacher and student access to quality mathematics resources in their classrooms. We are currently studying their effectiveness in terms of student learning and achievement,” said Karin Wiburg, associate dean for research in NMSU’s College of Education.
The five-year study, funded by a $3.5 million grant, began in 2009 when NMSU researchers developed short educational animations, mini-games and interactive tools that help students in grades five through eight better understand important concepts.
Understanding of elementary and middle school mathematics content is crucial in order for students to be successful in high school mathematics and beyond.
Math Snacks was created by NMSU game designers using their Learning Games Development Model, which includes extensive collaboration between researchers and game designers in refining educational objectives and designing educational tools.
“Key concepts are conveyed in a creative, visual and applied way,” said Barbara Chamberlin, director of NMSU’s Learning Games Lab. Chamberlin served as the development director on the project. “The ‘snacks’ may be used to introduce a topic in a fun way, review a concept or to reinforce a concept. They are designed to impact the middle school learner during critical learning years.”
Math Snacks are not designed to replace instruction, but supplement it by making math more accessible.
“Kids love games and games allow you to teach in a way that makes students want to learn,” said Wiburg, principal investigator for the Math Snacks Program. “Our research shows using games and animations, particularly with teacher support material, leads to highly engaged learning by students.”
When teaching middle school mathematics, it is difficult to determine which concepts students struggle with due to the large amount of content covered. This is the basis of the Math Snacks Project. The first step of the project was to determine some of these conceptual gaps.
The concepts addressed by Math Snacks animations and games were identified using the results of more than 24,000 standards-based assessments in five diverse school districts. Some of the key gaps identified by the Math Snacks research team led by Wiburg include ratio, proportion, scale factor, fractions, number line and place value.
These concepts are frequently misunderstood by sixth- and seventh-grade students, even though the concepts are initially taught as early as third grade.
“The team then observed classroom instruction and interviewed students and teachers to answer why commonly missed items on the test were misunderstood,” Wiburg said. “Mathematicians, math educators and technology experts worked together to identify classroom needs, correlate identified gaps with new National Core Standards and establish Math Snacks Learning Objectives.”
Once the Math Snacks animations and games were created, the research team studied whether the technology reached the objectives by getting the program into the hands of students and teachers.
Early findings from a three-day Math Snacks Camp, held in July 2011 at the Tri-Border Innovation Center in Anthony, N.M., indicates students mastered 52.9 percent of the concepts, despite the fact that 70 percent of the students indicated they did not know what a ratio was at the beginning of the camp.
Further investigation to determine the educational value of Math Snacks was conducted during the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012 when 460 sixth- and seventh-grade students taught by nine different teachers participated in a controlled study.
This pilot investigation compared pre- and post-test gains of the students in two settings. Five teachers utilized Math Snacks games and animation without the prescribed lesson protocol, while four classrooms utilized the Math Snacks games and animation, but teachers were free to develop their own lessons using available Math Snacks online resources.
“The study suggests that the use of animation in conjunction with effective written work and activities, whether or not teachers use scripted lessons, leads to increased student understanding of ratio and number line concepts,” said Karen Trujillo, College of Education research faculty and co-author of the initial research findings.
The study also suggests that the use of animation alone does not necessarily lead to increased student understanding of concepts.
“Results show moderate and significant pre-post test gains for both groups of sixth-grade students, however significant gains for seventh-grade students were shown only in classes where the prescribed lesson protocols were used,” said Alfred Valdez, Special Education and Communications Disorder Department assistant professor and statistician on the Math Snacks grant project.
The pilot study confirms current national research that indicates the teacher plays a vital role when determining the effectiveness of technology-enhanced lessons on student learning.
“In the past, it has been shown that the effective use of technology may lead to student achievement,” Trujillo wrote in a paper being submitted to the American Educational Research Association. “However, games technology by itself does not necessarily lead to knowledge transfer of mathematic skills and understanding.”
Further research by the NMSU team is being conducted now to determine the impact of Math Snacks in comparison to classrooms where the concepts are taught through traditional means.
Research by other scholars has found that using technology for constructivist applications had a more positive effect on math learning than traditional uses of drill and practice software.
Students of 38 teachers in school districts throughout New Mexico and one in Arizona will be studied this spring. Half of the teachers will use Math Snacks in their classroom lessons and the other half will not.
“We have proven that Math Snacks works,” Trujillo said. “But how do students who do have access to Math Snacks compare to those not using the program? That is the question we want to answer now.”