How Virtual Games Can Help Struggling Students Learn

More educators are using online games to supplement teaching, and are seeing positive results.

More educators are using online games to supplement teaching, and are seeing positive results.
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It seems like kids do everything online these days - and school is no exception.

More and more, educators are taking advantage of digital advances to supplement their teaching in the classroom, and are seeing encouraging results. This is especially the case for certain subgroups of students that typically struggle academically, such as English language learners and special education students.

"The classroom you went to school in is almost the exact same classroom you'd walk into today, but the level of engagement our kids get outside of the classroom has changed dramatically," says Jessica Lindl, general manager of the digital gaming company GlassLab and a spokesperson for the game SimCityEDU. "Teachers are almost the entertainers trying to find whatever tool they can to try to engage their kids."

Lindl says the SimCityEDU game helps engage kids by helping them improve basic cognitive functions and critical thinking. In the game, students serve as the mayor of a city and are immediately faced with challenges - they must address environmental impacts on the city while maintaining employment needs and other relationships.

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Although Lindl says it's important to use games as a supplement to classroom-based learning, such digital outlets have added benefits.

"There is continuous positive feedback," Lindl says. "Learners are way more likely to feel comfortable with a video game than taking a standardized test and that's really powerful."

Additionally, video games in the classroom provide teachers, administrators and parents with a plethora of data to give assessments on students' performances that Lindl says is invaluable, not just because of the granularity of the data, but also because it shows student achievements in real time. Other times, parents and students may have to wait weeks or months, depending on the test, to see their results.

"When you think of learning games, engagement and game mechanics is exciting, but there's a critical value proposition around game-based assessments that we're seeing," Lindl says. "Teachers, students and parents can have in the moment understanding of what the child is learning, how they arrived at that learning and accelerate what the learning is, as opposed to waiting weeks down the road."

Another valuable aspect of using games in the classroom is the competition (and hence reward) mechanisms built into some games.

At Mario Umana Academy in Boston, students from kindergarten through eighth grade have been using a program called First in Math since 2010.

"I think certainly competition could be viewed as positive and negative, but right now it seems to be in this building a rallying cry for the school and an issue of school pride, where they can say that as a school we are working very hard to be number one in the state," says Principal Alexandra Montes McNeil.

And the students have achieved that goal for the past three years. Montes McNeil says the students see the competition as a motivating factor to help them achieve their math goals.

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Ellen Latham, an eighth grade math teacher who pushed to bring the program to the schools, believes First in Math helps students build on basic math skills that many often struggle with, such as addition, multiplication, fractions, and other standard math curriculum. But in the math games, students are rewarded for solving problems with speed and accuracy, which helps them break through those barriers, Latham says.

"I have always felt in public education that kids' basic skills are slowing them down to understand more complex content," she says. "They're spending too much time trying to remember what nine times six is, but their time should be spent on the more complex math."

That's why often times, students at Mario Umana Academy are assigned First in Math games as a homework assignment. That way, as they build on basic skills at home, they're able to move on to more advanced math in the classroom - and the results show.