• Funded by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Focus: Research Evaluation Project
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Overview

Are educational iPad apps valuable for learning? Until recently, no studies had put iPad learning apps to the test. Led by USC Prof. Michelle Riconscente, GameDesk ran a study on Motion Math, an iPad fractions app for elementary school-aged children. The study evaluated whether playing Motion Math led to increases in children’s fractions knowledge and attitudes. Among the main findings were that fractions knowledge increased an average of 15%, and participants gained confidence in their fractions ability and reported liking fractions more after playing the game. The study was recently accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed and scholarly Games and Culture Journal, and has earned the 2013 Top Paper Award from the Meaningful Play Journal for the first national study on the effectiveness of mobile educational games in the classroom.

Research Questions

The overarching question was whether Motion Math holds value for learning fractions and whether children find the game entertaining. Three specific research questions were pursued:

  1. Does playing Motion Math lead to increases in children’s fractions knowledge?
  2. Does playing Motion Math lead to more confidence in and liking of fractions?
  3. Do children rate the Motion Math game positively?

Methods

To answer these questions, we conducted a repeated measures crossover design with 122 fifth grade students. This research design makes it possible to attribute the outcomes to Motion Math, and to eliminate alternative explanations for the outcomes. As shown in the table below, all participants first took a pretest. For the next five days, Group 1 served as the treatment group and played Motion Math for 20 minutes daily, while Group 2 served as the control group. After five days, all participants took the test again, and then the groups switched roles. Group 1 became the control group and Group 2 became the treatment group, playing Motion Math for 20 minutes daily over five days. Finally, all participants took the test for a third and last time. The fractions knowledge test was comprised of questions based on released items from the California Standards Test (CST), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). Test items for the study are included in the full report.

Group Day 1 Days 1-5 Day 6 Days 6-10 Day 10
1 Pretest Motion Math Midtest control Posttest
2 control Motion Math

Results

Several statistical analyses were conducted to compare Motion Math outcomes to the control group outcomes. These analyses and results are described in detail in the full report. Below are key findings from the study.

Significant Increases in Test Scores

The results of the study showed that participants’ fractions test scores improved an average of over 15% after playing Motion Math for 20 minutes daily over a five-day period, representing a significant increase compared to a control group.

mmThe figure to the right displays Fractions Knowledge gains over time for Group 1 (blue) and Group 2 (red) at one of the two study sites. Solid lines indicate statistically significant within-group gains. Participants were given ten minutes to respond to 20 questions.Increased Confidence and Liking
Participants’ self-efficacy for fractions, as well as their liking of fractions, each improved an average of 10%, representing a statistically significant increase compared to a control group. The figure to the right shows Fractions Liking gains over time for Group 1 (blue) and Group 2 (red). Solid lines indicate statistically significant within-group gains.

Positive Game Ratings

All participants rated Motion Math as fun and reported wanting to play it again; nearly all (95%) children in the study reported that their friends would like the game, and that the game helped them learn fractions.

Conclusion

With hundreds of educational iPad apps on the market, it is important to know whether they help children learn, and whether iPad apps like Motion Math also contribute to children’s positive attitudes toward academic subject matter. Though much more research is needed to test learning apps, and to discover ways to use them most effectively with a broad range of learners, this study marks an important step toward testing educational technologies with stringent research designs. Schools are charged with teaching children academic subject matter, and doing so in a way that leads to better scores on state and national tests. For teachers and administrators who are in the position of deciding which, if any, educational technologies to use in instruction, this study offers evidence that this particular app is likely to help their students learn fractions and improve test scores. The results of this study suggest that what children learn through gameplay can help them perform better on the kinds of questions asked on state and national standardized tests. In less than two hours of game play distributed over five days, the app shifted the needle on participants’ understanding of a topic that has long eluded most learners. Moreover, results indicated that game play can boost kids’ confidence in and enthusiasm for academic subject matter. Although more research is necessary to replicate these findings, and to explore the conditions under which learning apps such as Motion Math are most effective, this study offers valuable insights into the educational potential of mobile apps.

About Motion Math

Created by graduates of Stanford University’s Learning, Design, and Technology program, Motion Math was designed to help children strengthen their understanding of the relationship between fractions, proportions, and percentages to the number line. The game plays on iPad, iPhone and iPod devices, leveraging the “accelerometer” feature. In Motion Math, the player tilts the device to direct a falling star to the correct place on the number line at the bottom of the screen. The stars fall one at a time, and each displays either a fraction, percent, decimal, or pie shape. The correct response generates a rewarding audio and visual response; wrong answers trigger increasingly strong instructional hints, starting with an arrow pointing either left or right, moving to hatch marks that break the number line into the appropriate number of parts, and finally labels on the hatch marks.


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