Turning up the heat: Summer school programs use math video games for enrichment and to stem summer brain drain

Educators say game-based learning inspires math enthusiasm.
Educators say game-based learning inspires math enthusiasm.

Statistics show that over the summer break, most students lose an average of two to three months of math computational skills they learned during the previous school year.  This loss of learning can mean an academic setback for some children that can take weeks, and in some cases months, to remedy when the school bells ring in the fall.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has characterized the effects of “summer learning loss” as “devastating” and “well-documented.” And according to a 2009 report by McKinsey and Company, this backsliding represents a cost of as much as $670 billion to the nation’s economy.

For educators in Florida and Texas, the concerns over losing ground academically over the summer were the same, yet their needs were somewhat different.  One was looking for enrichment to keep kids excited about learning, while the other needed tailored remediation.  Yet the quest led them both to video games. Not your ordinary ‘commercialized’ games, but rather immersive, instructional video games.  These game-based learning tools, designed to teach and reinforce key math concepts, are on the forefront of helping teachers and students meet and exceed state-standards and score well on high stakes exams. In both cases, they selected Tabula Digita’s DimensionM.

Game-based learning adds up in remediation efforts

In Texas, eighth grade students must pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) mathematics test in order to advance to the ninth grade.  They are given three chances before the end of June in the given school year and then a Grade Placement Committee determines their fate.  Couple that with the trepidation many students have when it comes to learning and mastering math and Algebra, and you begin to understand the dilemma educators face.

“It’s a one-two punch for teachers and students alike, said Dr. Mary Thomas, who oversees state and federal accountability for Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Texas. AISD serves more than 82,000 students in 120 schools. Nearly 58 percent of the student population is Hispanic with 28 percent exhibiting limited English proficiency.

“We have to prepare the students for the tests, which are necessary and critical, and we have to combat their real fears and insecurities about mastering math. We decided we had to find a solution to alleviate students’ fear of learning a complex subject by teaching it through a more relevant and exciting means–and we decided that high-impact, engaging educational video games were the answer.”

AISD’s use of the supplemental games began as part of an intensive 10-day JumpStart program for 350 students in the eighth grade who failed the mathematics portion of the TAKS retest for the third time.  The program, designed to prepare students for ninth grade Algebra I, offered students four hours of accelerated core instruction each day.  Program organizers decided to test the games as a new instructional approach to drive student achievement and combat the inherent fears in mathematics.

“We asked the impossible of Tabula Digita and they met and exceeded our expectations,” said Norma Jost, secondary mathematics supervisor for AISD. “In just a few weeks time, they instructed our teachers on how to incorporate the games into the acceleration curriculum; students were given 30 minutes a day to play the games.  What we saw next was amazing–our students were not only succeeding but truly becoming interested in learning mathematics again.”

“What’s great about the multiplayer video games is they incorporate a series of first-person action adventure missions that feature graphics, sound, and animation similar to those in popular video games,” said Thomas. “By successfully navigating the missions, which are ripe with embedded lessons, students quickly master the mathematics concepts previously discussed in class, or in this case, the remedial core instruction.  This helps to simplify the complexities of mathematics by presenting them in a format–video games–that today’s students understand.”

For educators in Austin, another important consideration in selecting the gaming software for the summer pilot program was the mounting research showing that game-based learning is a highly successful 21st century teaching and learning tool for today’s digitally advanced students.

“Educators across this country must rethink the delivery of content in this new digital landscape, yet equally important to our teachers are standards-based tools,” said Thomas.  “With these games we get both–relevant, fun, engaging tools fused with games that are aligned to standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Texas state standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for mathematics.”

Video games equal summer enrichment

Tampa, Florida’s Hillsborough County educators knew summer was fast approaching and they likewise knew it would be difficult to keep kids engaged, interested, and excited about learning during summer enrichment programs.  That’s why they turned to video games for their educational activities at their Hillsborough Public School’s Out-of-School Time (HOSTS) Program.

Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) serves all of Hillsborough County.  It is the third largest school district in Florida and the 11th largest district in the United States, serving more than 193,000 students in 243 schools.   Approximately 48 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch program.

Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia first learned about the supplemental software at a conference and brought the information back to her staff.

The immersive games require students to create their own avatars and then face numerous mathematical obstacles that necessitate knowledge of content and swift reaction to navigate through the games and score points.  As they compete, students build upon basic skills like multiplication, division, and fractions, which in later years will lead to mastery of everything from proportions, number lines, and adding and subtracting integers; to order of operations, evaluating expressions, employing function tables, and solving complex equations.

Janet Boatman, middle school math supervisor for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, immediately saw the games’ appeal after she participated in a demonstration.  She quickly decided to incorporate them into the county’s eight-week summer enrichment program at three school sites.

“We saw firsthand how these games get students excited about learning math.  They were so engaged that they not only caught up to where they should have been the previous year, but many even gained ground, allowing them to start the current school year ahead of the game,” said Boatman.  “As a result of the successful summer experience, we have incorporated the math games at one site this school year and plan to expand next year to additional sites. And of course, we will have three DimensionM summer camps again this summer.”


During AISD’s 10-day program, students were assessed twice by way of a survey.  Nearly 82 percent of the student respondents indicated they were improving in understanding key mathematics concepts such as negative numbers and generalizing patterns. More than 86 percent of the students were quick to respond positively to the question about whether they liked the games and whether they thought the games were helping them to improve their mastery of mathematics.

In Hillsborough, the results were stunning. Pre- and post-test results indicated a 19 percent gain in math scores.

“The students commented that they never knew they could have this much fun at summer enrichment camp,” said Boatman.  “As educators, we love to see this kind of enthusiasm for math.  Coupled with improved student learning–it makes us all winners.”

Hillsborough students finished the summer course with an action-packed gaming tournament in Tampa where they successfully demonstrated what they learned in just a few weeks time.

Boatman continued, “I was really pleased at the retention rates our summer enrichment camp program enjoyed this year.  Parents told us their students were begging them to let them continue attending after the session was over.  It was so refreshing to see how interested these students were in math and how much they helped one another.  I encourage other schools to try it–they’ll be hooked!”

For more information, please go to Tabula Digita or DimensionM.

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