How can you engage students and trick them into learning math? We did it using an instructional video game called DimensionM by Tabula Digita.

It’s no secret that kids love games. Today’s popular titles, such as World of Warcraft, Halo 3, The SIMS, and Assassin’s Creed, foster learning and critical thinking. They are increasingly complex, and they require players to invest a lot of time learning both the mechanics of the game and the story line. Many players spend countless hours devising new strategies to improve their performance. Educational games use motor skills, attitude, verbal information, cognitive strategy, and intellectual skills. What more could a teacher ask for?

Playing DimensionM

DimensionM is a highly interactive, first-person-oriented, 3D video game that is similar to popular commercial games, such as Halo and the Unreal Tournament series. The player assumes the role of a college student who lands on a deserted island that was once home to a military biotechnology facility. Experiments on this island have gone awry, and the player must solve various situational dilemmas to escape. Mathematics instruction and practice are integrated into the story line of the game. The player must master certain pre-algebra and algebra skills to progress.

The game features a calculator and a journal, which allow players to review the game dialogue as well as the math concepts. At the close of each mission, the player takes a quiz, which is integrated into the game’s story line that includes both multiple-choice and short-answer questions about the mathematics concepts encountered in the mission. The scores from the quiz and game play are combined to calculate an overall mission score. The player is then rewarded with a gold,silver, or bronze medal.

Introducing the Study

We used DimensionM with 28 middle school students at a rural school in North Carolina. Each student voluntarily enrolled in an innovative remedial course called Virtual Math, which was designed to bolster the scores of students in grades 6–8 who scored below proficiency on the state math exam. The class met 2½ class periods per week. At the beginning of the Virtual Math course, we had students play the game’s Tutorial and Xeno Island missions.

The Tutorial mission acquaints players with basic navigation in the game world and introduces them to built-in reference tools, including the journal, mission objectives, and math concepts.

The Xeno Island mission addresses the concepts of prime numbers, even and odd rules, and perfect squares. Students begin the mission on Xeno Island behind a locked gate. To unlock the gate, the students must use their “visors” to locate shells on the beach that have a prime number associated with them. In the second phase of the mission, the students must use their visors to locate spider-like robots that can broadcast a radio signal to a nearby console that controls a second locked gate. Students see a variety of even and odd expressions over the robots. In the third and final phase of Mission 1, students must find a way to cross a chasm to a control station on the other side. The only way to accomplish this is by activating a bridge by collecting power cells nearby that have numbers associated with them that are perfect squares.

We gave students two hours to work through the Tutorial and Xeno Island missions. Students who completed the orientation or the mission early were allowed to play again to improve their overall scores. The course tutor provided technical assistance and encouraged students to use the game’s builtin journal and mathematics resources.

Students continued to progress through DimensionM’s missions, with each class involving about 50 minutes of game play and 25 minutes of debriefing and instruction.

Assessing Results

Before playing the game for the first time, students completed an eightquestion pretest that included questions covering the learning objectives for the Xeno Island mission. These questions, written in multiple-choice format, were similar to those integrated into the game play and addressed the concepts of identifying prime numbers, evaluating even and odd expressions, and identifying perfect squares.

After students completed Xeno Island, they took a posttest on the same math concepts. The students made significant gains in their overall achievement. Math scores increased from 46% correct on the pretest to 63% on the posttest. Students showed the greatest improvements in the concepts of prime numbers and perfect squares, yet they still struggled with perfect squares, averaging only 38% correct on the posttest.

Surveying Students

Students also answered questions— before and after they played the game—about their attitudes toward video games and using games for learning math. They responded to 10 questions with ratings from strongly agree (scored as 4) to strongly diagree (scored as 1) and a question about their favorite game.

Overall, students said they were better at video games than mathematics, and they believed that video games were easier to learn than mathematics. Students believed that video games could help them with their learning, and they preferred playing video games at school rather than at home. Students said their favorite video games were Guitar Hero, Madden Football, Mario games, and the Need for Speed series.

We discovered that students were willing to take a trial-and-error approach to advance through the Xeno Island mission. For example, in the first part of the mission, players pick up nautilus shells whose number of rings is equivalent to a prime number. Many students began by simply picking up any shell and dropping it in the console that controls the locked gate that prevents their advancement to the next stage of the mission. Students quickly began referring to the game’s built-in journal, which includes help with math concepts. Once they understood the concept of prime numbers, their actions were more purposeful, and they advanced through the stage more quickly in successive attempts. Students were willing to replay the same mission to improve their overall score. In the spirit of friendly competition, students made multiple attempts to surpass their classmates’ scores.

The students’ success was noticeable not only to us, but also to other teachers who were not directly involved in the study.

The math coach, Greg Goble, said students who took the Virtual Math class were inching ahead of students in the regular math class. “Because they need to know the math to advance in the game, they’re willing to learn it,” Goble said. “It’s building their confidence, and it’s putting them ahead in their regular math class.”

After three weeks of game play, the course tutor, Judy Joseph, said she had noticed an improvement in students’ performance. The highly immersive nature and exciting game play of DimensionM was effective in engaging students and teaching them mathematics concepts. DimensionM increased middle school student achievement in mathematics, and students were more upbeat about math.

DimensionM can be used in classrooms to teach students, especially those struggling with math. With the emphasis on game play, students tend to be less anxious about their academic performance, allowing them to focus on the concepts.

Lucas B. Gillispie is the instructional technology coordinator for Pender County Schools in North Carolina. See his video games and read his education blog at Edurealms.com.

Michele Parker is an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Her research interests include the use of technology in higher education and K–12 settings.

Florence Martin is an assistant professor in the instructional technology program at UNC in Wilmington. She is interested in researching tools that improve learning and performance.

Copyright © 2010, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 1.800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 1.541.302.3777 (Int’l), iste@iste.org, www.iste.org. All rights reserved.

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