Gamification and Games-Based Learning

18 Games-Based Learning in the Math Classroom

Debika Thiruchelvam

Debika Thiruchelvam (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology


As society becomes increasingly focused and dependent upon technology, the educational scene must shift to accommodate such changes to help students tackle challenges in the twenty first century workplace. One of the ways this can be accomplished is through the implementation of game-based learning in the classroom. This paper discusses how game-based learning can be used in the K-12 context, specifically for mathematics education. The importance of creating technologically advanced classrooms with a shift in the traditional educational paradigm is discussed. A literature review of existing studies at the K-12 level discusses the advantages to students in terms of their academic achievement and intrinsic motivation. The use of DimensionM, an immersive educational game designed to improve math performance in the classroom, is discussed as a realistic implementation of these principles into Canadian classrooms.

Keywords: game-based, learning, math, K-12, elementary, high, school, student, achievement, motivation.


The goal of education is to prepare youth for lifelong learning (Divjak & Tomic, 2011). As digital technology pervades into all spheres of life, it is imperative that education includes technology. An increasing number of classrooms are now using technology to facilitate learning (Rosen & Beck-Hill, 2012). The aim of using technology in education is to create environments that are engaging for students, easing their ability to understand and remember curriculum content (Rosen & Beck-Hill, 2012). Furthermore, technology assists teachers with differentiating their instruction to suit the needs of individual learners. Differentiation refers to “providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas” (p. 228).

Although technology provides a rich source of materials for educational reform, it seems that most educators do not use technology to enact deep enough of a change resulting in a paradigm shift, but rather use technology marginally to reinforce traditional teaching methods (Rosen & Beck-Hill, 2012). The benefit of using technology such as the iPad, for instance, in the classroom is that it allows young learners to use many a variety of their senses, such as aural and visual, which has been shown to benefit learning, especially in math (Carr, 2012). Such technologies foster environments that permit student centered learning (Carr, 2012).

Over the last four decades, several studies have pointed to the use of games as a way of increasing learning whilst simultaneously decreasing the amount of time spent teaching (Divjak & Tomic, 2011). Games may be a better reflection of the kind of learning environment that learners prefer and can thrive in than is the traditional classroom (Kebritchi, Hirumi & Bai, 2010). As stated by Spires (2015), “Many digital games require players to master skills (e.g., strategic and analytical thinking, problem solving, decision making, adaptation to change) that are in demand in today’s workforce” (p. 125). This makes games invaluable to the twenty first century student.

Furthermore, student engagement with the learning process is highly contingent upon the rapport the student has with their instructor (Rosen & Beck-Hill, 2012). As many researchers have noted, the approach to education has shifted greatly with the onset of technology, including the role the teacher plays in the classroom. Tapscott (1997) declared the teacher to be “more of a facilitator of social learning whereby learners construct their own knowledge” (p. 148). Game-based learning (GBL) provides an ideal environment for pupils to be on the forefront while their teachers implement and catalyze.

Literature Review

The existing literature on GBL in a K-12 context is not very extensive. The few studies that have been conducted have major procedural limitation, focus on older learners, or emphasize other curriculum areas as opposed to math. Nevertheless, useful findings regarding the implementation of GBL for math education, specifically, can be gleaned upon careful inspection.

A study by Kickmeier-Rust, Hillemann & Albert (2014) focused on Austrian students in the second-grade learning division with an app known as Sonic Divider. The app used some gaming principles, such as keeping score. Points are assigned to tasks based on the perceived difficulty. Children can gain points for correct answers with no penalty for errors. Conversely, points may be deducted for incorrect responses. A competition mode is also possible, allowing the children to strive for the highest accumulation of points. This app exploits Competence-based Knowledge Space Theory, in providing formative feedback to learners in real time, by assessing which skill they are lacking in. The researchers found that the students found using the app much more appealing than worksheet-based assessments and found that boys had a higher preference for the games compared to the girls. The boys also wanted to compare their scores with others more than the girls did, suggesting a preference for competition. The researchers did not measure achievement on summative assessment, however.

Carr (2012) explored how American fifth grade students’ achievement in math may be affected by using iPads in the classroom. The researchers did not find that using iPads in the math classroom had significantly influenced the students’ achievement as measured by their performance on standardized state tests. The researchers posit that this may be due to a disconnect between the skills standardized tests measure and the skills that can be honed by using mobile devices. However, the researcher did not specify how GBL principles were used, such as which applications or games were used.

Kebritchi et al (2010) set out to explore how high school students’ motivation and achievement in math could be improved using computer games. A total of 193 high school algebra students participated in the study. The teens played an educational, instructional game called DimensionM. Unlike a simple question and answer type of game, the game has a storyline and assigns players missions to complete in accordance with the overall plot. An immersive, three-dimensional, adventure style game, it allows the student to play as a shooter, incorporating video game elements. It has both single player and multiplayer options. The latter requires interaction with other players, not merely competition for a higher score. Participants who played the games in the study self reported higher levels of motivation and felt that the game showed that them there are different ways to learn math. Youth who played the game also fared better on the district’s standardized math test compared to a control group of students who did not (Kebritchi et al, 2010).

Bai et al (2012) researched the impact of this same game on a group of 445 American eighth graders. The game was used as a supplement to the teacher’s lesson plan. They noted that students in the control group, the ones who did not play the game, lost motivation as time went on because tasks became more difficult. This did not occur for the students who played the game (Barr et al, 2012). This can imply that more difficult concepts should be taught using GBL.

Further research could be conducted into other mathematical games or focus on assessments that are not based on state standardized tests. Additionally, the research as applicable to Canadian youth and curriculum is scant, if not nonexistent. The existing research on American classrooms did not make specific connections to curriculum expectations, as well (Spires, 2015). The existing research also seems to solely focus on the use of games in addition to relatively traditional teaching styles.


The literature has shown successful implementations of GBL in math classrooms. As demonstrated in the research studies referenced above, one of the benefits of using games in learning is that it can increase a student’s motivation to keep learning. People are often more absorbed in a process when they feel they are on the cusp of achieving their desired outcome (Kickmeier-Rust, Hillemann, & Albert, 2014). In this way, GBL can encourage students to continue pursuing a course, thereby counteracting attrition.

As two successful studies have demonstrated, DimensionM can be used in the classroom to reinforce math curriculum objectives. The game requires players to impersonate a college student on a deserted island, rife with various problems that they can be resolved if they correctly answer math questions (Bai et al, 2012). Various mathematical principles from middle to high school level are featured in the game. There is a total of 20 missions, involving a variety of mathematical skills such as proportions, arithmetic operations with integers, solving algebraic equations, and graphing on the coordinate grid (Bai et al, 2012).

Using immersive games like DimensionM could be more motivating to students. As stated by Kim & Lee (2015), an effective educational game should include challenge, curiosity, and fantasy. Since DimensionM is divided into a series of missions, it includes the element of challenge. It involves roleplay, which meets the criteria for fantasy. The organization of the game into various missions provides the curiosity. Teachers could use the game as a core part of their lesson, although as research has shown, supplemental use has had significant impacts on learners.

However, there are negative aspects to games-based learning. One is that the fear of not achieving goals and feeling intimidated by the notion of rivalling against one’s peers, could discourage some children from participating. Another finding is that monetizing achievement when playing games in the classroom can results in lower quality work (Kickmeier-Rust, Hillemann, & Albert, 2014). Therefore, teachers should refrain from giving out prizes, or bonus marks, for instance when game play is involved. This would have the opposite effect of having students focus on the result rather than the learning process.

Since there have been mixed results regarding GBL and achievement, teachers should perhaps not use DimensionM to improve student achievement. Rather, achievement can be a by-product with the main goal of using games as increasing motivation and interest in course material. As stated by Brandenberger et al (2018), “Students with higher learning motivation achieve significantly higher test scores, enjoy learning more, have more positive self-concepts, make greater use of deep learning strategies and engage to a greater extent in autonomous self-regulated learning” (p. 296).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

In summary, teachers should be willing to incorporate more technology into the classroom, especially ones that have been proven to improve student motivation, and in some cases, achievement. Research demonstrates social, cognitive and emotional benefits of education games, as well (Spires, 2015). Game based learning provides students with the type of learning environment that they prefer, as opposed to the traditional classroom, and allows students to develop the skills that are required of them in the workforce. As demonstrated in the literature review, there are no overtly negative effects of GBL learning, except in the cases of individual student preference and modifications made by the teacher. Therefore, teachers should be willing to incorporate games to help reinforce and consolidate topics for their students both in the classroom, and perhaps as homework, as well when possible.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 by Debika Thiruchelvam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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