In one West Virginia school, contests inspire e-learning

By appealing to competitiveness, students engage in online lessons to earn points and win prizes

Boone County, WV isn’t exactly known for being a bastion of education technology. 

But in the western coal-mining town of Comfort, WV, Sherman Elementary School is seeing success in motivating young learners to tackle the challenges of e-learning by offering a system of points and prizes.

The elementary school serves under 500 students from pre-K through the sixth grade. 

Assistant Principal Jacob Messer and his staff were brainstorming ways to use a new ed-tech product called MobyMax over the summer break when they decided to hold a contest.

“It was a collaborative effort among administrators and teachers,” Messer recalled. “For the summer contest, we wanted students to be able to retain skills they mastered during the 2014-2015 school year."

That way, he thought, when students returned for the 2015-2016 school year, there would be less need to review previously acquired skills.

MobyMax is a website that offers both free and premium online personalized learning resources aligned with Common Core standards in math, language and reading. Its target audience is K-8 teachers. Most resources are aimed at developing problem solving and critical thinking skills, but it also supports a contest format, so Sherman students and teachers didn’t have to create a framework for the experiment.

They did, however, need to conceptualize rewards that would inspire students. Messer and his staff came up with bonuses for all participants that included extra recess time and “a special dance during the last 30 minutes of school,” he said.

“Prizes are awarded to the overall, primary and intermediate winners,” Messer explained, saying that kids loved earning “game time” based on online lesson completion. Reward games are non-academic.

And to further motivate summer contest participants, a back-to-school reward trip to a water park with a wave pool was offered for learners earning at least 300 points in the contest.

Every correct answer logged during online, self-paced lessons resulted in the accrual of points. Messer used Facebook posts to encourage participation and to cheer on contestants.

“I encouraged staff members, parents and community members to share the [Facebook] statuses in order to spread the word,” he said. “Many of the parents and community members did so, which helped increase the number of participants and points we had.”

Before launching the contests, students were surveyed in order to determine whether the majority of students had access to internet in the home. This was a concern because in West Virginia, around half of all school-age children receive free or reduced lunch. But the majority of Sherman Elementary students did have web connections at home. Those without were given paper printouts of online lessons.

Rae Boyd, a fourth grade teacher at Sherman Elementary, said that the majority of her students loved the contest. All students had internet access at home, and were able to complete lessons online.

“Their general competitive nature makes them eager to participate and try to out-score their classmates,” Boyd said, noting that her students were also enticed by the variety of incentives.

Assistant principal Messer also used the contest format to support student learning during snow days. This year alone, his district has tallied a total of eight days of school cancelled due to snow.  

Using online lessons that depend on an internet connection does present some challenges during inclement weather: Snowstorm-related power outages can effectively eliminate the possibility of online learning for students.

The first snow day e-learning contest at Sherman Elementary stretched across seven days, Messer said. The second snow day contest lasted for two days, and the third just a single day. Student participation fluctuated, with 138 student participants during the first snow day contest, 91 for the second, and a total of 110 for the third.

“Before our school began these e-learning contests most students spent their snow days and summer breaks playing video games,” Boyd said. 

She noted that while not all students gained new skills, practicing previously learned lessons helped reduce the skills regression that happens over breaks.

Professional development for Sherman Elementary teachers has focused on tech, Messer said, with the goal of expanding offerings in the years ahead. He also plans to continue both the summer break and snow day e-learning contests.   

“Our students love technology-based learning, so we look for every opportunity we can find to utilize it and use it to our advantage,” Messer said.

Top image credit: Courtesy MobyMax