Digital technology has become important ammunition in the arsenal of personalized learning strategies. The idea of personalizing learning has been around for a long time, but ed tech has revealed a particular power to make it more efficient.
So far, ed tech companies have focused on personalizing learning by figuring out how to meet students where they are, giving them material that is challenging but not too challenging and progressing as they do. Motion Math is one of the few companies taking a different approach.
CEO Jacob Klein says tweaking how to present material or when to offer hints assumes that students come to the experience wanting to learn.
“If you have a student who doesn’t want to learn the material or believes that any mistakes they make are indicative that they can’t learn the material, it really doesn’t matter how good your scope and sequence is, how smart your scaffolding is, how smart your hints are,” Klein said. “None of that personalization is going to matter unless you find ways to motivate the student.”
In a recent experiment with more than 5,000 students in grades two through six, researchers from Motion Math tested the impact of mindset coaching on engagement, challenge, persistence and mastery.
A control group of students played the game Hungry Fish as it was originally designed, while an experimental group saw three differences. First, an introductory slideshow gave a quick lesson on the principles of growth mindset. It used a metaphor of a brain growing stronger by lifting weights so students could see that more challenging mental exercises stimulate brain growth.
Second, instead of the standard win/loss statements at the end of a level, the experimental group saw new messages. If they successfully completed a level that was too easy for their skill level, the message encouraged them to try something more challenging, and if they failed to complete a difficult level, they were congratulated on their “great brain workout.”
In the game, students choose their own levels. The control group could choose between levels one and 18, while the experimental group had to choose from four level categories — one easier than their current skill level, one harder and two in line with it.
The personalization in Hungry Fish is not about the difficulty of content or pace at which students approach it. It personalizes messages based on student choices, with an overall goal of getting students to think differently about being challenged.
Klein said the results of the study were even better than expected. They were worried that any improvements in persistence or students’ approach to challenge would be offset by reduced engagement. Researchers thought the messages would seem too pedantic.
“In fact, we found the opposite,” Klein said. The largest effect size from the experiment was in the category of engagement.
In 2013, BrainPOP similarly tried to integrate growth mindset coaching into its game Refraction. In an experimental setup, students who were playing the growth mindset version of the game played for longer and completed more levels than their peers in the control version of the game. Importantly, they persisted for longer when faced with challenging problems.
In a white paper describing the Motion Math study, Stanford University professor and Motion Math consultant Jo Boaler writes the outcomes present a key lesson for teachers.
“Some of the most important classroom moments come when students struggle – in those instances many students give up, telling themselves they are not a “math person,” Boaler said. “The interventions designed by the Motion Math team – telling students in moments of struggle that their brains are benefiting, and their learning is maximized – are useable by any teacher of mathematics.”
Even beyond math, children who see their ability in the context of a growth mindset rather than a fixed one are better prepared to succeed. Now it looks like a growing number of games may soon be able to reinforce this critical perspective.