Education Week - May 17, 2017 - 10
Do Digital Learning Games
Improve Young Students'
By Madeline Will
In Gregory Smith's 5th grade class in
Tampa, Fla., two girls are beating the majority of their class in an online math-strategy game.
That is remarkable given the original disparity between the two students: The girl who
is No. 1 on the class leaderboard scored a level
five-indicating mastery-on Florida's state
test in math last year. The other girl, who is
No. 3 on the leaderboard, had scored a level
one on the state test.
"When they played each other at first, the
student at level five [on the state test] won almost every time," Smith said. "Over the last
month, it has been a very close split between
the two young ladies."
The students have been playing the online
game since January. Sometimes, the girls
play against each other and sometimes they
play against the computer, Smith said.
"[The student who scored a level one is]
doing math that's harder because she's playing with a friend," he said.
That sort of increase in student achievement is what educators in the Hillsborough
County school system are hoping to see with
the adoption of TiViTz, a math-strategy game
that covers concepts from single-digit addition
to multiplying and dividing by percentages.
Smith, who teaches at Witter Elementary,
which is part of Hillsborough, conducted an
informal study that found that after four
months of playing TiViTz games online, his
students' math-skills scores went up significantly, from an average of 49 percent to 83
percent. The students enjoyment of math also
nearly doubled, by their own ratings.
"I've seen enthusiasm in some of the children who normally didn't do as well, paperto-pencil, but when they're doing it because of
the game, they're doing better at it," he said.
"If you don't like something, you're definitely not going to do well in it. And if you
don't think you're going to do well, you're definitely not going to do well," Smith continued.
That's the philosophy behind digital math
games, whether they're played online or
through an app. Many educators and reWith Motion Math's digital learning
games, students can practice basic
economics and word problems through
running a cupcake-delivery business
(top two views) or match numbers and
pictures to learn addition (bottom).
Researchers Develop Scales to Measure Students' Math Anxiety
By Jaclyn Zubrzycki
If Levi Vaughan, a 5-year-old kindergartner in Braidwood, Ill., makes
it through math class without a
meltdown, it's a good day.
The transition to school has been
tough in other ways for Levi, said
Stefanie Vaughan, his mother, but
math has been uniquely challenging.
"His math papers get pulled out
and he's in full-blown crisis mode,"
Vaughan said. "He has to leave the
So Vaughan reached out to a
friend, Molly Jameson, a professor
of educational psychology at the
University of Northern Colorado
who studies math anxiety in young
In 2013, Jameson developed a
scale to help measure math anxiety
in the youngest students. Vaughan's
hope is that the scale will help her
and Levi's teachers understand how
much of Levi's distress is specifically
related to his anxiety about math.
Jameson is one of a number of
researchers trying to gain a better
understanding of math anxiety in
children like Levi.
A growing body of research shows
that many adults and older students
have anxiety about math. But only
in recent years have researchers
been looking to early childhood to
understand the roots of the problem
and how it is entangled with math
performance and other psychological challenges.
"It's unclear in the literature if
people who have low knowledge de-
velop anxiety-in which case, they
need skills-or if a low feeling of
confidence leads to lack of knowledge." Jameson said. She said that
understanding math anxiety could
help teachers identify how and
where to intervene when students
And, she said, it's important to
intervene early. For instance, adult
women cite higher levels of anxiety
in math than adult men, and women
are also less likely to hold jobs in
many science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or STEM, fields-
but women who stay in STEM fields
are less likely to report math anxiety, Jameson said.
"I think a lot of it starts in early
elementary school," she added.
Measuring Math Anxiety
"We're consistently seeing we
have a decent number of kids with
math anxiety by 4th or 5th grades,"
said Colleen Ganley, a professor of
psychology at Florida State University, "but we don't know when
it starts, how it develops, what's
happening before that, and how do
they get there."
A first step is determining how
to measure how math-anxious
young students are in the first
place. But the scales used to measure anxiety in adults aren't always appropriate for young children, and there is no single scale
used by most researchers.
In her Children's Anxiety in
Math Scale, Jameson uses a series
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 17, 2017 | www.edweek.org
of faces-a smiling face indicates
a lack of anxiety, while a frowning
face is associated with anxiety. Her
scale has been used by researchers
in the Philippines and Turkey, as
well as the United States.
Ganley developed a different scale
for her research that asks students
to answer questions about their relationship with math on a scale of
"yes, kind of, not really, and no."
Ganley said that while some early
research indicates that adults can
self-identify as math anxious, a 1st
grader is not likely to be familiar
with the word anxiety-or with
some of the physical symptoms associated with it.
She said that some surveys ask
if a child feels butterflies in his or
her stomach in math class. But one
child she surveyed said he felt butterflies because he loved math so
much, and another associated that
feeling with hunger.
Ganley said that on her scale,
students are answering that they
are anxious about math as early as
A Complex Link
Julianne Herts and Alana Foley,
both researchers at the University of
Chicago, recently published a paper
showing that math anxiety can be
present even in students who excel
at math-and that anxiety can significantly impede their performance
in the subject.
But that work focused on older
Some researchers are beginning
to look at how adults' attitudes and
dispositions affect children.
Herts said that teachers' attitudes
seem to matter, and that early-education majors "tend to be very mathanxious as a group." Parents' attitudes also seem to have an impact:
In 2015, Sian Bielock, a professor
at the University of Chicago, found
that parental anxiety about math
was tied to math anxiety among
children. That effect can start early,
even before school.
T hat f inding lines up w ith
Stefanie Vaughan's experience.
Vaughan said she struggled with
math in school, and the difficulty
is now compounded because Illinois' math standards are "a different approach than what I grew up
Still others are beginning to look
at how to address math anxiety.
Last year, for instance, a team of
researchers led by Vinod Menon,
a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, found that working with a
tutor seemed to improve 3rd graders' performance in math and reduce their anxiety.
The University of Chicago's Foley
said that there's room for more research on what's happening in the
earliest grades. "Anxiety and performance are correlated, and in
adults it tends to be bidirectional,"
Foley said. "In children, we have
the opportunity to ... tease out casual relationships."
The University of Northern
Colorado's Jameson said she could
imagine individual school psychologists or teachers using the mathanxiety scale to understand when
a student's math struggles were
related to emotions or to determine
how an entire class was feeling
"Is it a lack of motivation or
knowledge or an emotional block?"
But the University of Chicago's
Herts said that even as more researchers develop tools to identify
math anxiety, she would caution
against overidentifying students as
having math anxiety, because that
could potentially foster even more
wariness about the subject.
Meanwhile, Vaughan, the Illinois mother, hopes the research
eventually translates into moretangible approaches to helping
children like Levi, who loves science and other subjects.
"I hope he wouldn't feel immediately defeated when he sees math
and just shuts down," she said. "I'd
hope he would be able to realize that
it might be tough, but to keep working and you'll get through."
Coverage of early-math education is
supported in part by a grant from the
CME Group Foundation, at
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