a student playing Variant, the calculus video game

University students who play calculus video game score higher on exams

By Elena Watts
April 19th, 2019

A Texas A&M study shows that a video game developed by students and faculty in its visualization department helps improve outcomes for students studying calculus, a prerequisite for STEM degrees with a high failure rate

An educational video game initially developed by Texas A&M University visualization students significantly boosts students’ scores in introductory calculus, one of the toughest classes to pass on a university campus.

The calculus video game, Variant: Limits, connects mathematics and gameplay in a 3D adventure in which students stop geomagnetic storms that threaten their planet’s survival by solving a series of increasingly challenging calculus problems. It was born in a collaboration of viz students and an interdisciplinary group of university faculty who work together in the Department of Visualization’s LIVE Lab.

It’s time for innovative teaching in higher ed

Innovative, effective measures to teach introductory calculus are in demand because too many students are failing. In fact, 22-38 percent of university students, depending on their preparation, failed calculus at more than 200 colleges that participated in a Mathematical Association of America study.

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Without successfully completing calculus requirements, they are unable to earn degrees in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as many business and architecture disciplines.

“We know students have fun playing Variant: Limits and that playing the game helps them connect more deeply with the class content, but now we have empirical evidence that directly ties gameplay to stronger learning outcomes,” said André Thomas, a visualization professor and CEO of Triseum, a game-based learning company that developed the game.

Gameplay leads to higher test scores

The empirical evidence comes from a study led by Michael Stephenson, vice provost for academic affairs and strategic initiatives at Texas A&M, which revealed that students who played Variant: Limits scored higher on class exams.

Stephenson and university science and education faculty also found that more time spent playing the game corresponded with higher exam scores.

The fall 2018 research project involved more than 2,000 Texas A&M engineering calculus students. An experimental group of almost half of the students played Variant: Limits while the study’s control group was not given access to the game.

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All of the students took the same exam, and participants in the experimental group scored higher than those in the control group. Additionally, students who completed the game saw the biggest jump in scores on the exam.

“Students who played a calculus video game that corresponded with course content taught during the first two weeks of the semester scored higher on the course exam when compared to those who did not play,” Stephenson said. “It is an encouraging sign that a game played over such a short period of time provided a small but statistically significant increase in exam scores.”

In previous research, 79 percent of students agreed that Variant: Limits increased their knowledge of limits and 83 percent reported they were able to apply their knowledge from the calculus video game in class.

As the White House calls for alternate methods and technology to improve STEM education, research on the impact of novel education technology remains largely unexplored, Thomas said. Texas A&M is helping change that.

“Students deserve every opportunity to succeed and educators need to give them access to tools and technologies that move the needle,” Thomas said. “Variant: Limits is doing that by helping students perform better in calculus so they are prepared for degrees and careers in STEM fields.”

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Texas A&M Today.]

About the Author:

Elena Watts works in Texas A&M University’s Division of Marketing & Communications.

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