How Game-Based Learning Encourages Growth Mindset
In the gaming world, perseverance, problem solving, and creativity are the keys to success. Players start out expecting to struggle and make mistakes, eagerly replaying levels and pushing through barriers to make headway. There is no such thing as failing in a digital game. All you have to do is hit the replay button and try again, and again.
The same kind of tenacity is crucial when learning math. Like gaming, learning math requires grit and persistence—cornerstones of growth mindset—and is grounded in problem solving, flexible thinking, and pattern recognition. What’s more, game-based learning (GBL) can address some of the most common roadblocks encountered by math teachers and students alike.
Given that most older children and teens play digital games outside of school—according to one study, 99% of boys and 94% of girls aged 12 - 17 play at least 7-10 hours per week—it’s no surprise that game-based learning is proving to be an effective classroom tool. Here are three ways that GBL encourages growth mindset, plus ten games to get you started with your own students.
1. Games welcome players of all ability levels in the same environment. Our classrooms can too.
As achievement gaps have widened and class sizes have grown in the last two decades, schools have responded by grouping students by ability level in order to making teaching more manageable. Grouping math students to target instruction has become widespread, with students often placed in one of three categories—intervention, advanced, and somewhere in the middle.
But this approach has its limitations. Intervention students can get stuck in a deficit model of instruction that repeatedly focuses only on the skills and knowledge they lack. It’s no surprise that a recent study found that Algebra 1 is the most repeated class in high school, and that both students’ performance on state tests and their grades decrease each time they repeat the course. In some schools, intervention classes begin as early as kindergarten, laying the foundation for children's fixed math mindsets at a time when they are most excited about learning.
Students with advanced skills can be negatively affected by ability grouping as well. Often praised for being smart, high achievers can become risk-avoidant; the fear of failing lasting into adulthood. Kids in the middle, too, may never move out of their comfort zones; a Goldilocks level of math instruction never gives them opportunities to productively struggle and develop their own growth mindsets.
Admittedly, it’s not easy to differentiate instruction in a paper-based class; it takes a lot of time for teachers to plan and it’s nearly impossible to differentiate for every student in real time. Adaptive GBL platforms can help by doing the heavy lifting, handling instructional planning, delivery, and data collection in mixed ability classrooms.
At New Mexico’s Farmington Heights Middle School, teachers use game-based learning to personalize instruction. With Mangahigh’s Prodigi game, for example, teachers are able to challenge and remediate students’ learning as needed—all in the same class period. The GBL platform continuously delivers differentiated content, scaffolds, and extensions to students based on their current levels of understanding, allowing teachers to focus precious class time on guiding learning. Students eagerly complete as many game levels as possible, flexing their growth mindset muscles as they embrace new academic challenges.
2. Gamers embrace challenges and use mistakes to learn.
Game-based learning offers students a chance to take academic risks in a safe environment; they can play the same level over again until they figure out how beat it. In contrast, many of our math students have become paralyzed at the mere thought of making a mistake. Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake, writes that we are raising a generation of children who are terrified of blundering, failing—of even sitting in the discomfort of not knowing something for a few minutes.
But making mistakes is crucial when students are learning math. According to Stanford professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler, making mistakes is actually “the most useful thing they can be doing.” Why then, do kids approach mistakes in math differently?
Math instructional practices that value speed and memorization do not honor the time and interaction with topics that students need in order to construct meaning. Mistakes are big red X’s on a paper, not an invitation to try again. Games, on the other hand, provide scaffolds as well as training areas where players can practice skills when they get stuck on a certain level. GBL works in the same way. Math games activate prior knowledge before presenting the learning objective. Students experience success from the start, building their confidence to take academic risks.
The GBL environment also eliminates the social consequences associated with making mistakes during whole-class instruction. Students are encouraged to persist at their own pace in a learning environment that provides unlimited opportunities for a do-over. GBL demonstrates that anyone can learn math with effort, guidance, and persistence—the pillars of growth mindset.
3. Games offer immediate, useful, and friendly feedback that is designed to motivate students to keep playing.
Games provide targeted, in-the-moment feedback based on a player's current performance. It’s hard to do the same thing in a math class. Grading student work by hand takes time and there is always a lag between students’ assessment and the resulting feedback. By the time graded papers are returned, instruction has moved on to the next topic; over time, mathematical misconceptions become wider gaps in understanding. What’s more, traditional math feedback—presented to students as a letter grade or percent correct—signals the end of learning. Grades don’t invite learners of all ability levels to revise missed problems to improve understanding.
Math games provide feedback in a much different way. Unlike graded papers that are quickly shoved into backpacks and forgotten, a game’s feedback is relevant to that individual student and requires the player’s immediate attention and action. Tim Mendenhall, a 6th grade teacher at Rees School in Spanish Fork, Utah, says his students took to GBL immediately. They “love the challenging GBL environment,” he says, “and are motivated to try again and again until they reach the next level”.
Just as important is the way in which feedback is communicated. Digital math games use multimedia cues—like wobbling avatars—that echo the games students play outside of school. When a mistake is made, games offer hints and tutorials to support success on the next attempt, using kid-friendly language and graphics. Feedback is woven into the learning experience, as the games cheerlead students along every step of their journey.
Incorporating game-based learning in your class does not require a complete revision of your practice or a course in coding. GBL platforms have become incredibly teacher-friendly, aligning objectives to state standards, and accommodating a wide range of instructional settings and philosophies. Traditional instructional strategies like class openers and exit tickets are great places to begin using games. Once you are comfortable managing GBL in short segments of class, you might try using games to support flipped classes and blended lessons to provide differentiated learning to all students and collect formative assessment data in real time.