Math video games can enhance students’ motivation to learn, but it may depend on how students play, researchers at NYU and CUNY have found in a study of middle-schoolers.

Educational Video Games Can Boost Motivation to Learn, NYU Steinhardt, CUNY Study Shows

By James Devitt

Math video games can enhance students’ motivation to learn, but it may depend on how students play, researchers at NYU and CUNY have found in a study of middle-schoolers.

While playing a math video game either competitively or collaboratively with another player—as compared to playing alone—students adopted a mastery mindset that is highly conducive to learning. Moreover, students’ interest and enjoyment in playing the math video game increased when they played with another student.

Their findings, which appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology, point to new ways in which computer, console, or mobile educational games may yield learning benefits.

“We found support for claims that well-designed games can motivate students to learn less popular subjects, such as math, and that game-based learning can actually get students interested in the subject matter—and can broaden their focus beyond just collecting stars or points,” says Jan Plass, a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and one of the study’s lead authors.

The researchers focused on how students’ motivation to learn, as well as their interest and performance in math, was affected by playing a math video game individually, competitively, or collaboratively.

Specifically, they looked at two main types of motivational orientations: mastery goal orientation, in which students focus on learning, improvement, and the development of abilities, and performance goal orientation, in which students focus on validating their abilities. For instance, in the classroom, students may be focused on improving their math skills (mastery), or, instead, trying to prove how smart they are or trying to avoid looking incompetent compared to their classmates (performance).

Researchers consistently find that a mastery goal orientation facilitates learning because students are focused on accruing knowledge and developing abilities. They also view mistakes and difficulties as part of the learning process—rather than an indictment of their lack of ability. By contrast, performance goal orientations may hurt the learning process, particularly for those who do not feel competent—for instance, students who fear looking less intelligent than their classmates may avoid opportunities that would, in fact, bolster their understanding of the material.

However, scholarship has shown that typical educational contexts—notably, classrooms—lead students to adopt stronger performance goal orientations than a mastery goal orientation. Consequently, researchers have sought to understand how to promote students’ mastery goal orientations and weaken the performance goal orientations that lead students to avoid potential learning opportunities.

One candidate is educational video games, which, at first glance, would seem to result in performance rather than mastery orientations given their competitive focus and that they are often played with others. But given the popularity of gaming among students, exploring their potential value intrigued the study’s authors.

To test this possibility, the researchers had middle-school students play the video game FactorReactor, which is designed to build math skills through problem solving and therefore serves as diagnostic for learning.

In order to test the impact of different settings on learning, students were randomly assigned to play the game alone, competitively against another student, or collaboratively with another student.

The findings revealed that students who played the math game either competitively or collaboratively reported the strongest mastery goal orientations, which indicates that students adopted an optimal mindset for learning while playing the video game with others.

Their results also showed that students playing under competitive situations performed best in the game. In addition, those playing in both competitive and collaborative conditions experienced the greatest interest and enjoyment.

The study’s other co-authors included Elizabeth Hayward, Murphy Stein, and Ken Perlin of NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Stanford University’s Paul O’Keefe, and CUNY’s Bruce Homer and Jennifer Case, all of whom are members of the Games for Learning Institute, co-directed by Perlin and Plass.

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