Can video games help students learn complicated concepts?
Many young students grew up with a joystick in their hands, so Texas A&M University has developed a sophisticated video game aimed to make calculus class a little less daunting.
Following on the heels of offering its first game-based course in art history in fall, the university this semester is piloting a game-based calculus class in which the game is the course.
Students use calculus fundamentals to complete quests and face virtual obstacles throughout the 3-D game, said Paula Lima-Filho, a mathematician at Texas A&M, who helped develop the game.
“The idea is to offer an engaging environment in which students will think about math and use it in a completely different way,” he said. “While playing, their minds are engaged in thinking mathematically, but it’s enjoyable and challenging at the same time.” The game has prompts where students can refresh the math theory if they’re curious about it or want to solidify the concepts.
Professors aren’t involved with the game, which reports data to instructors, but are on hand to help students with the math part, Lima-Filho said.
The course is a one-credit elective centered around Triseum’s game, Variant: Limits, which students in Texas A&M’s LIVE Lab had a hand in developing. It’s a short, one-month class, and is not intended as a replacement for a regular calculus course.
Lima-Filho said he sees it as a way to help increase undergraduate retention by keeping students interested and motivated. About 72% of students who voluntarily took the course last year for extra credit said the game increased their knowledge, and 85% said the gaming activities were related to the learning tasks.
“Students are very comfortable playing video games, and they may have used them in high school, so this can serve as a continuation when they come to college,” Lima-Filho said. “I’m a very classic person, and want to make sure they get the things they need to learn: how do you integrate those calculus concepts into a video game? Those who volunteered to take the course were very positive and said it was very captivating. They wanted to get to the end to find out how the story ends. It’s a very different philosophy, being a ‘gamer.’ Most gamers know they have to explore and that if they see an obstacle, they have to figure out how to circumvent it.”
As a mathematician, Lima-Filho said he didn’t understand the game at first. He thought about developing an interactive e-book, but moved to a game after reaching out to the university’s Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab. It was created by the Department of Visualization to help foster ways to incorporate game technology and methods into the classroom experience.
Lima-Filho worked with Andre Thomas, an assistant professor who teaches gaming design and development and who worked in the gaming industry before entering academia. The researchers received a $100,000 grant from Texas A&M to commercialize the art history and calculus games to be used by other colleges and universities. Variant is offered at both Texas A&M and Texas A&M at Galveston.
The game-based course is one of several new tools Lima-Filho’s department hopes to share to help improve mathematics education across Texas, to both make math more popular and to downplay STEM stereotypes that may discourage students from entering math fields.
Variant could be expanded to include four separate games to present a comprehensive calculus experience, he said.
“The generations are changing, and 70% of students say they play video games,” Lima-Filho said. “With the next generation of teachers, it’s only a matter of time before they can offer tech support or talk about the technical aspects of the game. I know it takes time for things to get incorporated into classrooms, but I feel like these games will be a useful tool that students and faculty will understand.”
Video games in the classroom: Worth a look
Susan Pedersen, an associate professor in the education technology program in the Texas A&M Department of Educational Psychology, said not every class pairs naturally with a video game, but it’s a concept worth looking into for colleges.
“Playing games is something this generation of students does casually all the time,” she said. “They’re very comfortable with a screen in front of them. It’s a good way to reel them in.”
Universities looking to delve into games, however, should keep in mind student standards are high.
“Twenty years ago, if you gave them a game, students were excited,” Pedersen said. “Now they expect pretty high production values. The game has to tie into educational concepts, but it also has to be a fairly sophisticated game.”
Games, she said, are great at relating content to context, she said. For example, Triseum's ARTe Mecenas game, used to supplement art history and art appreciation courses, teaches the interconnectedness of the local and international economies of Renaissance Italy and how those economies influenced art and art patronage.
“Games have the potential to make learning more relevant,” Pedersen said. “Kids are seeing where the concepts are useful. So many engineering students come in and they fail calculus. Games may be a way to keep them engaged.”