The Case for Game-Based Math Learning

ST Math, an online program from MIND Research Institute used by more than 1.3 million P-8 students, employs a visual, gamified approach to teach math. I recently spoke with MIND’s chief data science officer Andrew Coulson, who heads evaluation of student and teacher usage and outcomes for ST Math, about the program’s approach to math learning and evaluating education technology more broadly.

— Rick

Rick: What is ST Math — how does it work, and how is it different from all the other math programs and curricula out there?

Andrew: ST Math is a supplemental visual instructional program for students from pre-K through grade eight that leverages the brain’s innate spatial-temporal reasoning ability to comprehend and solve mathematical problems presented as a game. ST Math avoids complex abstractions when a student is first encountering a math concept. There are no new math symbols or vocabulary to start — just animated visual puzzles that start easy, become challenging by design, and must be solved to move forward. The puzzles provide dynamic visual models that explain why the math works. This low cognitive load to start provides a lower barrier to begin learning. Students, regardless of their math-proficiency level, engage by testing out their ideas and learning from thousands of repetitions of immediate, visual formative feedback. And for them, ST Math is a challenging game, so they are motivated to persevere and win.

Rick: Why make it a game?

Andrew: In our case, the math itself is the game. There aren’t unnecessary or distracting features interspersed with math problems. Our research indicated that nonmathematical features typically found in games, such as avatar creation or timers, were a distraction for some kids, so we eliminated them! Using game mechanics, such as including informative feedback and intrinsic motivation, has awesome implications for academic content. You get as many chances as you need to solve a puzzle, but you do ultimately have to solve it. Students don’t believe a game designer would make a puzzle too hard for them to overcome, so they persevere through challenges.

Rick: Where did this idea come from?

Andrew: Twenty-five years ago, neuroscience researchers from the University of California, Irvine, had the insight that our brains are hardwired for visual pattern manipulation. These researchers created visual puzzles to test this observation and found that all students had a surprisingly high visual reasoning ability. They knew that this innate ability was not being leveraged to solve a serious education problem: a lack of deep conceptual understanding of mathematics. This led to the founding of our nonprofit and the patenting of our unique approach. We continued our research and created a math curriculum that uses visual puzzles.

Rick: What’s the cost for ST Math?

Andrew: ST Math can be purchased by districts and schools. The ST Math site subscription model provides access to ST Math for the entire school population, across all grade levels, at one annual price, which starts at three-thousand five-hundred dollars annually and varies by enrollment. Families can subscribe to ST Math Homeschool if their child is not using ST Math through their school. ST Math Homeschool was made free to families on March 14, 2020, due to COVID-19 and resulting school closures. This program will remain free through June 2022.

Rick: Some parents might be wary of game-based learning — how do you reassure them that students are actually learning?

Andrew: I agree with wariness about games that mix too healthy a serving of nonacademic fun with actual learning. To a parent overseeing their child playing ST Math at home, I would say this: Look at your child’s face to see if there is higher-level thinking going on a substantial amount of the time. See if your child is being challenged and if they celebrate when they overcome a challenge. Even try some puzzles yourself!

Rick: How do you gauge the program’s learning outcomes?

Andrew: ST Math’s reporting helps ensure productive time on task. Teacher reports illustrate the math each student has covered, as well as their time of use and productivity in puzzle completion. While some struggle is beneficial, teachers can check on pre- and postquiz scores and receive alerts when students are struggling. When it comes to the efficacy of ST Math, we have third-party evaluations and established an annual study cadence with repeatable results. One of our largest studies ever, which included over one-hundred-fifty thousand students, was released by independent researcher WestEd and verified by SRI. Researchers found that schools that consistently used ST Math outgrew similar schools in statewide rank by fourteen percentile points.

Rick: Do you have any favorite success stories?

Andrew: We all hear the narrative that some people have “the math gene” while others do not. Parents are elated when one of their children who thought they had no chance at understanding math becomes engaged and confident in their abilities. It’s not a research data point — it’s a life-changing moment for that family. In my almost twenty years at MIND, I’ve heard so many stories like that — too many to count! One that has particularly stayed with me is about a kindergartner from D.C. public schools, a once-introverted student, who thrived since using ST Math. Not only did the success he earned through ST Math improve his confidence, it also opened up leadership opportunities for him. Once the student reached one-hundred percent completion of ST Math early, he pivoted to sharing his expertise as a mini math coach, helping other students through struggle and success. I love stories like this that show ST Math has value even beyond math.

Rick: What are one or two concrete tips you can give to parents or teachers evaluating ed-tech offerings?

Andrew: Especially over the past year, companies have offered an overwhelming number of learning resources to schools and families. The needs of each student are different, so I recommend parents research whether a resource has robust, recent, and repeated evidence showing that it works across diverse groups of students, as then it’s more likely to add value for your child. We actually put together an e-book to help parents and teachers do just that. Additionally, learn what the providers’ recommended usage requirements are to get the results and make sure your child is putting in that usage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.