How can teachers use video games to teach math remotely in the time of COVID?

6 min readNov 8, 2020
Students in Oakland, CA, using Wuzzit Trouble as a suplementary learning resource in a classroom in the pre-COVID era. When classes are conducted over the Web, with students in their homes, digital games can play a much more central role.

Faced with students having to learn remotely in their homes due to the pandemic, teachers need to find new ways to keep their students engaged. Educational video games provide an obvious mechanism. If well designed, they are both educational and highly engaging. I don’t say that because I design educational video games; rather I decided to create educational video games because research carried out by me and many others had demonstrated their educational power.

Back when I and some seasoned veterans of the video game world and the educational technology world created BrainQuake, we viewed video games as being ideally suited for use as educational supplements. For children in particular, learning mathematics is best achieved in a class with others students, led by a knowledgeable experienced teacher, we believed. (And some of our team had been teachers.) We still believe that. The power of interacting with fellow students, all under the guidance of a professional educator, is the central factor in promoting good learning.

So we built our games to function as standalone devices, and we marketed them as consumer products (recognizing that teachers and students are consumers), rather than targeting and pursuing bulk sales to schools and school systems, which is how traditional educational materials were typically sold. We did, however, make sure they could be used in classrooms, and tested them in classroom settings to ensure they worked in that environment. (We also took note of the many different, and often innovative, ways teachers incorporated out products in their classes.)

In the current COVID period, that distinction between classroom and home has disappeared. Educational technology products have gone from being supplements to potentially occupying center stage as key educational tools.

It is then timely that a new Finnish-Chinese study of how teachers can use math-learning video games in their classrooms has just been published, focusing in particular on how the teacher can support and scaffold the learning that results from engaging with an educational game.

Titled “Primary school students’ perceptions of scaffolding in digital game-based learning in mathematics”, the peer-reviewed paper will be officially published in 2021, but it is available now on the Web. Working with education researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland, researchers at the prestigious Beijing Normal University in China studied how four mathematics teachers in a Chinese school used our own launch app Wuzzit Trouble in their classes as they taught a total of 141 primary school students.

[BrainQuake cooperated with the researchers. In particular, I gave advice on the use of video games in mathematics education in general and some background on our game in particular and how to use it, and we provided some initial technical support, but we were otherwise not involved in the independent university study.]

Carried out by researchers in Finland and China, the study used BrainQuake’s launch app Wuzzit Trouble to examine how teachers can make use of suitably designed math-learning video games in their classes.

The primary focus of the study was to explore the approaches teachers took to scaffold learning with a digital game-based in primary mathematics classrooms, as well as the effects on students’ perceptions of learning in a digital game in which scaffolding was provided. Qualitative data was collected through classroom observations and student interviews. The results identified whole-class and one-to-one scaffolding strategies, both of which had an important effect on students’ learning activities and perceptions of mathematics in the context of digital games in primary education.

While the paper is written for other educational researchers and published in a scientific research journal, and as such is not a “how to” manual for teachers, there is nevertheless some useful information that teachers can glean from the paper in order to make effective use of video games (in particular exploratory games such as ours) in their classes, including ways to use it when classes are conducted over the Web.

For instance, the researchers observe that the scaffolding process typically involves three steps:

1) contingency, which includes responsive, adaptive, and in-time support for students’ current performance;

2) fading, which refers to the gradual withdrawal and decrease in support following improvement in students’ performance and capacity; and

3) the transfer of responsibility, which means that the responsibility of the learning process is transferred from the teacher to the students.

These three steps are closely interconnected. When teachers provide contingent support, and it results in improved student understanding and performance, the teachers can then withdraw and decrease their support. Subsequently, the fading of support leads to a responsibility shift from the teacher to the students so that they can regulate and conduct their learning independently.

I’ll leave it to readers sufficiently interested to check out the paper, but will provide you with a brief summary of points in the study that seem well suited to adoption in classes conducted over the Web.

I should note that the researcher did not provide instruction in the use of scaffolding techniques. Rather, they simply observed the practices the teachers were using. The study can therefore provide information on how effective the use of explorative digital learning games such as ours might be when scaffolding is provided either in a classroom or over the Web.

[I will mention that the Wuzzit Trouble game used in the study provides its own internal scaffolding mechanism, as do all well-designed math-learning video games. Our new BrainQuake app provides, in addition, full student adaptivity and formative, real-time student feedback. With such a game, likely the main benefit of teacher scaffolding is in helping students go beyond success in the game to achieving deep understanding and being able to apply what they have learned more broadly — which is of course the ultimate goal.]

The participating students (age 9–11 years; 77 boys and 64 girls) had experience with learning mathematics through games (e.g., playing cards) in their schools. However, the students did not have learning experience with digital games in mathematics before the study. The four Chinese mathematics teachers involved, all of whom were female, had no experience teaching with digital games before the experiment.

The researchers observed two basic teacher-scaffolding strategies: whole-class scaffolding and one-to-one scaffolding.

Both classroom observations and student interviews showed that whole-class teacher scaffolding enabled congruity between most students’ level of experience and conceptual understanding, which helped determine the students’ learning needs in a clear and in-depth manner. The students then became familiar with the gaming process and were able to control their problem-solving in a deeper manner during their learning with the digital game.

One-to-one scaffolding occurred during the gameplay phase. When an individual student could not solve the problem independently, the teachers provided in-time instruction and adaptive support. All the student interviewees stated that the teachers did not give them the answers directly but instructed them to think and analyze the problems through dialogue (e.g., ask questions). The teachers then provided hints when necessary and summarized the methods and steps for solving the problem when this was deemed necessary. Some students noted: “She [the mathematics teacher] did not tell me the answer but let me think independently. Then she taught me the steps of problem solving.”

In comparison to whole-class scaffolding, one-to-one teacher scaffolding concerned individual student performance. Therefore, the teachers used the concrete and effective scaffolding strategies to encourage the students to explore, as well as to trigger their interest and help them learn independently.

This figure, taken from the paper, summarizes the educational benefits that were observed to come from the use of an exploratory digital game (Wuzzit Trouble) when used in a classroom with teacher scaffolding.

The classroom observations and student interviews showed that contingency, fading, and transfer of responsibility occurred in both the whole-class and one-to-one scaffolding strategies. The dialogue interactions between the teacher and student(s) in the digital game-based learning classroom made it possible for the teacher to diagnose the student(s)’ current level of understanding and thus, provide adaptive support; moreover, the dialogue interactions played a crucial role in the process of the students acquisition of knowledge and skills.

The observations and interviews suggested that the two scaffolding strategies are suitable for use in supporting students’ learning activities in digital game-based learning in primary mathematics classrooms, and that, as a result, the integration of teacher scaffolding into digital game-based learning can have an important effect on students’ learning and development in mathematics in primary education.

– Keith

NOTE: For information about other scientific studies involving BrainQuake products, see the Research page on our website.