You are on page 1of 12

Running Beau: NATB uANES F0R LEARNINu 1

Math Games for Learning: The Impact of Computer-Based

Arithmetic Games on Students Motivation and Math Scores
Kate Ropchan
ETEC 511, Section 64B
November 2013
University of British Columbia

Games get you thinking. They make you laugh and get you excited. They cause you to
frown when you lose and cheer when you win. They inspire competition and grab your attention.
I have witnessed even the most disengaged students get involved when games are utilized. After
all games are fun, and who doesnt want to have fun while learning?
Researchers have viewed games with great interest due to their potential for education.
Learning from games encourages exploration, hypothesis testing, risk taking, persistence past
failure, and seeing mistakes as new opportunities for progress and learning (Gee, 2003, p. 37).
Applying the use of games to classroom settings has the potential to greatly benefit students
(deCastell & Jenson, 2003; Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2001).
Todays students have grown up in a different generation than their parents. They have
grown up with computer games and are accustomed to the daily use of technology such as
computers, mobile devices, and video games. As a result, this generation is commonly referred to
as digital natives and it is widely accepted that todays learners require new ways of teaching
(Prensky, 2001). Students today require new motivations that capture and hold their attention,
engaging them in the learning process while providing them with timely formative feedback to
use for improvement. Game-based learning is one method that can be used to enhance learning
and motivation for 21
century students.
As a math teacher, I would like to harness the power of computer games to motivate
students and improve their knowledge of arithmetic. There are several studies that investigate the
effectiveness of games used in classroom settings, but there is less information specifically about
computer games to enhance the teaching of math. To increase my understanding about the
effectiveness of math games, I examined relevant research to find out what impact math
computer games have on student motivation and learning. Benefits of technology-based math
games for learning are investigated, as well as challenges for implementation. Finally, the use of
math computer games in my classroom is discussed in relation to the research.
Problem Statement
Interest in enhancing math education with the richness of in-class gaming activities led to
the primary focus question: What are the effects of arithmetic computer games on academic
performance and motivation to learn in a mathematics class? The following sub questions were
developed: (1) What are student perceptions of computer based math games in the classroom?
and (2) How is student performance on an arithmetic skills assessment affected by the use of
math computer games?
Critical Review of the Literature
Games have existed for thousands of years, and have often been used in educational
settings. The introduction of computers and the Internet has led to new games that can be played
online and offer immediate feedback to students. So how do math games affect academic
performance? And what impact does a gamified educational approach have on student
motivation? Numerous studies have been conducted on the uses of games in the field of
education, but as mathematics teacher interested in technology, I have decided to focus
specifically on studies involving tech-based games for learning math.
Wijers, Jonker, and Kerstens (2008) tested the usability of MobileMath, a collaborative
mobile game to support students engagement in learning mathematics. Of the 60 thirteen and
fourteen year old students that participated, 54 completed a questionnaire about the usability of
the game. Survey results indicated that a significant majority of students found playing the game
to be engaging, motivating, and fun. However, the impact of gamification on academic
achievement was not measured.
Would university students prefer to learn arithmetic from a game or from more traditional
methods? And would the students learning from a game have higher academic achievement as a
result? During the spring 2010 semester, 9 students enrolled in an electrical engineering course at
Norfolk State University took part in a study to answer the previous questions (Morsi & Richards,
2012). Pre-assessments measured the students ability to do number conversions using an
untimed problem set, after which they practiced their skills using an XBox 360 educational game
called BINX. It should be noted that this study is limited by the lack of a control group, and by
the small number of participants. Results showed that 60% of students demonstrated an
improvement in mathematical ability from the pre to post-test. Researchers note that 40% of
students may have done worse on the post-test due to the stress and time limit of writing a quiz
as a post-test rather than an untimed set of questions as with the pre-test. Regardless, the
peicentage of stuuents who weie able to meet the leaining outcomes incieaseu fiom the
pie to post assessments. Auuitionally, focus gioup iesults ievealeu that stuuents enjoyeu
playing the game anu they believeu that it was veiy helpful foi leaining the new aiithmetic
concepts. Stuuents inuicateu that iegaiuless of the challenges they weie faceu with in the
game, they peiseveieu because of theii uesiie to win.
The following study also investigated the effects of playing computer games on
mathematical achievement, but results were specifically examined based on gender and language
minority groups. Kim and Changs (2009) research used the 2005 National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) to gather data on more than 170,000 US 4
grade math students.
Results showed that there was no significant effect of math computer games on mathematical
achievement for female students. Male students whose first language was not English showed a
correlation between playing math computer games and higher academic achievement in math
class. English-speaking male students who played computer math games in school every day
displayed significantly lower mathematical achievement than students who never played.
However, when English-speaking male students played computer games sometimes in math class
(from once a month to twice a week), they demonstrated higher performance than their
counterparts who did not play math computer games at all. This research (Kim & Chang, 2009)
may provide educators with a basis to guide students to play math games at appropriate times
(sometimes, but not during every math class). The gender difference in results also indicates that
math games need to be designed in order to have more positive results for female students. Some
caution is required when drawing a conclusion of causation from these results because this study
was based on a survey of math computer game use in schools and its correlation with
mathematics scores rather than a controlled experimental study. In addition, the research does
not identify which computer games were utilized and how learning was promoted.
Research provides evidence that for some students, math computer games can positively
affect academic achievement (Kim & Chang, 2009; Morsi & Richards, 2012). But are computer
games superior over paper-and-pencil drills? Ke (2008) investigated this using a pre-test/post-
test quasi-experimental design involving 358 students from eighteen 5
grade public school
classes in Pennsylvania. Half of the students were randomly assigned to the paper-and-pencil
drills group, while the other half were assigned to the web-based math game-playing group.
Qualitative results from in-field observations indicated that computer games were significantly
more effective than paper-and-pencil drills when it came to promoting learning motivation.
However, the computer games were not significantly different in facilitating mathematical test
performance. Thus computer games may be beneficial due to their potential for engaging and
motivating students to want to learn math, but they may not be any more effective than paper-
and-pencil drills when it comes to practicing basic math skills. Ke (2008) also noted in this study
that a cooperative, small-groups approach to gaming had better results than encouraging
competition or individual work.
Shin, Sutheilanu, Noiiis, anu Soloway, (2u12) also compared math games to paper based tasks,
but in this case the paper-based tasks were games as well. If games are successful in enhancing
learning, then does it matter if the games are played on technology or paper? Shin et al. (2012)
investigated the effects of game technology on student learning of mathematics by selecting 41
grade students from two classes to play either a technology-based game or a paper-based
game for five weeks. The paper-based game involved pairs of students using flash cards to
practice adding and subtracting. GameBoy Skills Arena was the educational computer game that
also allowed students to practice the same addition and subtraction questions. A quasi-
experimental control group design with repeated measures analysis of variance and covariance
was employed to explore the academic differences between groups. In both control and
experimental groups, male students had higher scores than female students. Results also
indicated that technological games resulted in an 11% increase in math scores from the pre-test
to the post-test after five weeks. Students that played the paper-based game only increased their
scores by 4%. To verify these results, additional research should be conducted using a
randomized control trial with control and treatment groups for a longer period of time, with a
larger sample size.
One of the biggest concerns for educators considering a new teaching format is whether
the new teaching model will have a positive effect on academic achievement. Research indicates
that playing web-based math games can improve mathematical ability on prescribed learning
outcomes (Noisi & Richaius, 2u12; Shin et al., 2u12). Fuitheimoie, eviuence is pioviueu
that computei games aie moie effective at iaising math scoies than papei-baseu games
(Shin et al., 2u12). Computei math games weie not founu to inciease acauemic
achievement moie than papei anu pencil uiills, but stuuents iepoiteu finuing them to be
moie inteiesting anu engaging, which woulu likely motivate stuuents to use them moie
than uiills if given the choice (Ke, 2uu8).
As mentioned, another important consideration when deciding to integrate games into the
classroom is whether students will enjoy this method and if they will find it motivational. Overall,
feedback on the use of computer games for math education has been quite positive, indicating
that students find this learning approach to be engaging, fun, and motivating (Ke, 2008; Morsi &
Richards, 2012; Wijers et al., 2008). Playing computer games for knowledge acquisition involves
effort, commitment, and determination; and this, like any serious engagement in learning,
affords pleasure, excitement, immersion, and playfulness (de Castell & Jenson, 2003, p. 659).
Important Considerations
Computer games have serious potential for the learning of mathematics, but there are
some important factors to consider when deciding to use them as part of an instructional
How does the use of computer games differ for male and female students? Kim and
Chang (2009) found no significant effect of math computer games on mathematical achievement
for female students, whereas they did for male students. Additionally, Shin et al. (2012) noted
that male students had higher scores than female students in both control and experimental
groups. These studies indicate the need for educational games that are better targeted to motivate
and teach female students.
For some students, it is important to consider how often math computer games are used in
the classroom. Male students whose first language was not English showed a correlation between
improved math performance and the use of math computer games, regardless of how often they
played. On the other hand, English-speaking male students showed improved math performance
when they played math computer games sometimes in math (no more than twice a week) but
significantly lower math performance when they played math computer games every day (Kim
& Chang, 2009). Perhaps if the games are played too frequently, then students will become tired
of them and stop trying as hard. As well, playing the games every class could use up time that
otherwise might be spent on instruction or valuable learning activities. Thus computer games
should be a supplemental activity, rather than being the primary focus of math class.
If computer games are to be used in math class, should students play them individually or
in small groups (for example, two students to one computer)? Should students results on the
games be public, in order to encourage competition between peers? Or should students be
competing as teams? Alternatively, should students compete against the computer, in order to
keep their own results personal and anonymous? Or should students be instructed to compete
against their own personal scores to try and improve their own progress? Ke (2008) noted that a
cooperative, small-groups approach to math gaming had better results than encouraging
competition or individual work. However, further research is needed in this area in order to
determine the most effective instructional approach.
Benefits of Computer Games for Learning Math
As a new math 8 teacher, I used to structure my classes by starting with a lesson that
provided examples of the current topic, followed by time for students to work on an assignment
with questions similar to the examples. This consistent approach led many of my students to
perceive math as boring, and it did not allow for personalized learning. After teaching for a few
years, I began to infuse more pupil-centered and engaging pedagogical ideas into my lessons, but
I still struggled with how to personalize the learning approach. Upon getting my own classroom
with an adequate number of computers, I began to integrate the use of online games into my
lessons. As shown by Kim and Chang (2009), I also found that the best tactic was to use
computer games sometimes, but not every class. Students loved the use of games for learning. So
why are computer games so effective for learning math?
Games can take a topic that learners may not initially find enthralling, and make the
learning relevant and exciting. After all, play is an enticement; it induces reluctant participants
to perform learning tasks that are structurally posited in the game itself as unpleasant (de Castell
& Jenson, 2003, p. 657). Games present novel situations and are more immersive than
decontextualized, skill-and-drill instruction. Games are enjoyable because they activate the
brains reward system with a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which promotes pleasure
and motivation in response to correctly answering a challenging question (Willis, 2011). The
reward for achieving a solution in an electronic game is the ability to progress to the next and
more challenging level of the game. Thus students are intrinsically motivated to keep playing
games, as their brain is seeking another surge of dopamine (Willis, 2011).
Computer games are also highly effective for learning because they determine students
ability level and provide questions that are challenging but achievable. Thus each student can
work at their own pace, practicing the skills that they need to master without the unnecessary
requirement to repeat tasks already mastered. This keeps the players brain engaged because
students anticipate that the dopamine surge is within reach with sustained practice (Willis, 2011).
Computer games provide feedback much quicker than I could to 30 students that are
simultaneously working on different tasks. Thus computer games provide an excellent method of
differentiating and personalizing the learning experience.
Challenges of Computer Games for Learning Math
Although there are many positive aspects of educational electronic games, there are also
some challenges. Firstly, there is the economic challenge: How will schools afford to pay for
these games? I have addressed this issue in my classroom by only using games that are available
online for free. Second, there is the challenge of training teachers to integrate games
meaningfully into their total curricular activities. Some educators have even displayed suspicion
and hostility towards games, mainly due to the negative influences games might have on people
(for example, thinking that electronic games would lead to aggressive behavior or poor attention
spans). More teachers need to be aware of the benefits of games for learning. The
implementation of games in the classroom will likely see more success with the new generation
of teachers that have grown up as gamers and have seen that games are a useful medium for
There are also some concerns specifically regarding the use of math computer games.
These games tend to test students solely on their ability to find a correct answer and do not
evaluate the students steps that were required to find the solution. Thus computer games may be
more effective for basic math skills, rather than higher-level problem solving. Additionally,
computer games should be only one approach to learning math, and should be complemented
with exercises that require students to explain how they got their answer.
Students love to play. Whether they are in kindergarten or university, adding fun to
classroom learning by playing games is a positive and effective way to engage and motivate
students (de Castell & Jenson, 2003; Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2001). Many teachers are capitalizing
on the benefits of games by incorporating their use into the classroom. Research has shown that
math computer games can provide motivation to learn (Ke, 2008; Morsi & Richards, 2012;
Wijers et al., 2008) and higher academic achievement for many math students (Morsi & Richards,
2012; Shin et al., 2012). There are several benefits to using electronic games for math education,
such as creating an immersive and fun learner experience that is personalized for each individual.
Challenges also exist, such as the fact that most math games dont require students to show their
steps or indicate how they arrived at a particular solution. Teachers should consider several
factors when implementing math computer games in the classroom. For example, games should
be selected that appeal to both male and female students, and computer games should not be
played every class or students will lose interest. After examining previous literature on this topic,
I have determined that computer games should not be the focus of my math classes, but they are
an excellent activity that I plan to use once a week. By incorporating computer games into my
math classes, I hope to provide an exciting approach to learning math while also personalizing
the learner experience.


de Castell, S., & Jenson, J. (2003). Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35(6), 649-665.

Gee, J. (2003). Semiotic domains: Is playing video games a waste of time? In What video
games have to teach us about learning and literacy (pp. 13-50). New York: Palgrave.

Ke, F. (2008). Computer games application within alternative classroom goal structures:
Cognitive metacognitive and affective evaluation. Educational Technology Research and
Development, 56, 539-556.

Kim, S. & Chang, M. (2010). Computer games for the math achievement of diverse students.
Educational Technology & Society, 13, 224-232. Retrieved from

Morsi, R. & Richards, C. (2012). Binx, An XNA/Xbox 360 education game for electrical and
computer engineers. Consumer Electronic Times, 1(3) 33-42. Retrieved from http://www.cet-

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw Hill.

Shin, N., Sutherland, L. M., Norris, C. A., & Soloway, E. (2012). Effects of game technology on
elementary student learning in mathematics. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 43(4),

Wijers, M., Jonker, V., & Kerstens, K. (2008). MobileMath: the phone, the game and the math.
In Proceedings of the European Conference on Game-Based Learning, Barcelona, (pp. 507-
516). Retrieved from
Willis, J (2011, April 14). A neurologist makes the case for the video fame model as a learning
tool [Web log message]. Retrieved from