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Evaluating Mathematics Games

A guest post by Dr Shane Dye

How can you choose the right mathematics games for your classroom?

Games are engaging but sometimes that engagement distracts from the learning.

Can a game be both engaging and support learning? How will you know?

Dr Nic and I have been pondering those questions recently. We were developing a multiplication facts card game. The game had to be a great choice for teachers. It needed a solid educational foundation and to easily engage students.

That led us to think about evaluating games for the mathematics classroom. We looked at the research and considered how games fit with learning and the curriculum. Our research led us to develop a system for evaluating mathematics games. We shared the system with teachers. Melulator blogged about the breakout Dr Nic gave at ULearn. You can download the criteria we developed here.

For this post I want to focus on two criteria:

  • Do the mathematics and game mechanism work well together?
  • How is the learning shared?

Game mechanism

Game mechanics are the rules and methods by which play proceeds. Many games have one main game mechanism, roll-and-move for Snake and Ladders, move-and-capture for draughts.

The mathematics can be endogenous or exogenous to the game mechanism. That is, the mathematics could be integral to the game or like an extra layer.

A couple of examples will help.

Endogenous

Have a look at the Snail Race game from crscience.org.

In the game each child chooses a snail numbered 1 to 12. Each turn two dice are rolled and the snail matching the sum is moved one square. The first snail to reach the end wins.

The game mechanism is roll-and-move. The mathematics in the game includes unequal probabilities. This is endogenous – the probabilities are integral to the game. As children play more and more they will learn that not all snails have the same chance of winning. They will discover which snails to avoid and which ones give them a better chance of winning.

Exogenous

Now consider a memory game where the children are trying to match an addition sentence with its result. A number of cards are laid out face down. The children take turns turning over pairs of card. When a child turns over a matching pair they keep the two cards and have another turn.

An addition facts memory game

The game mechanism is matching. The mathematics, addition, is exogenous. The basic game doesn’t change if the cards are replaced to show shapes and shape names to match.

A disadvantage of games with exogenous mathematics is that the game mechanism can distract from the mathematics. For this game, the children spend effort remembering where cards are – this effort does not help with the mathematics learning. Also, when a child turns over two number sentences or two results, they may be able to avoid the intended maths.

Games with exogenous mathematics have advantages too. The same basic game can be used for lots of different mathematics. Children do not have to learn so many different game rules.

Learning share

Another important aspect is how the learning experience is shared – who gets the most exposure to the mathematics.

For the addition memory game, making a match gives another turn. A child who is good at matching number sentences to the result gets more practice than a child who isn’t so good.

Those with the most need get the least learning exposure.

Elimination games are the worst example of this. The children who need the most practice get eliminated earliest.

For the Snail Race game the learning share is pretty even. All children are engaged each turn and the likelihood their snail moves is directly based on the probabilities we want them to learn about.

Some games have roles that increase or decrease exposure to the learning. The banker in Monopoly gets more practice making change than anyone else.

In the classroom

My advice is to choose games that provide the same learning share to everyone. Better yet, choose games that give the most learning opportunities to those who need it most.

Don’t think of endogenous as being ‘good’ and exogenous as being ‘bad’. Instead weigh up the benefits for your classroom.

I believe this way of thinking about games allows us to make better choices for games in the mathematics classroom.

Postscript: Multy Facty

We found this way of thinking about games really useful when designing our game – Multy Facty.

We worked hard to make sure the mathematics is endogenous, the learning share is pretty even, and the game is great fun to play.  There is enough luck that everyone has a chance to win. And, the game helps to build better number sense.

So far we are told that teachers and children love it. (Check out the how-to-play video.)

Multy Facty - a multiplication facts game

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