A Game-based Approach to Teaching Calculus: Implications of the Research for STEM Courses

Cliff Rouder

On March 16, we were honored to have Dr. André Thomas from Texas A&M University as this year’s STEM Educators Lecture guest speaker. Dr. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Practice in the College of Architecture and is the Director of the LIVE lab at Texas A&M. He is also the CEO of Triseum, a small spin-off company of the LIVE lab. 

Dr. Thomas shared his experience with the process of creating and testing a video game to help calculus students master a conceptual understanding of limits–a fundamental concept students often struggle with early on and that is essential for success in the course. Calculus is required for several STEM majors, but with a national failure rate (defined as a grade of D, F, or Withdrawl) of 34% for Calculus 1, it is often a barrier to students’ success in their intended major and career

Dr. Thomas began by reminding us that when we are very young, we learn by playing games, but this element of play disappears as the educational approach shifts to sitting in rows and listening to lectures. Games are a medium for learning just like books, and thus they do belong in the classroom and are indeed currently being used in STEM courses nationally and internationally. However, completing the game isn’t what’s most meaningful; rather, it’s enabling students to take a deeper dive–to spend more time on task–through a medium that this generation of students has grown up playing and enjoying.

The process of designing a video game to teach calculus began for Dr. Thomas and his team by pinpointing the really complex and challenging subject matter that a game might help students master and identifying specific learning objectives. Many iterations later, with input from an interdisciplinary team of students, subject matter experts, game designers, instructional designers, and assessment experts, they developed the game Variant Limits. Receiving feedback from students was essential; successful game creation requires a thorough understanding of what students look for and find pleasurable in a video game experience. 

Variant Limits puts students in the role of a female explorer in a 3-D world who lands on an abandoned planet and has to figure out what happened using their conceptual understanding of limits to overcome certain obstacles in that world. At the end of each segment of play, there’s an assessment for students to reflect on what they did and how it worked. To learn about the effects of Variant Limits on students’ grades, we invite you to listen to the Zoom recording of Dr. Thomas’ talk in our CAT Workshop archive.

The process of designing the game and researching its impact on student learning taught Dr. Thomas two key lessons: 

  • STEM faculty have to get out of the mindset that their mission is to weed out students who are not performing well. Rather, they need to embrace the mission of helping more students succeed. 
  • Helping our students recover from suboptimal performance and failure is crucial. STEM faculty are conditioned to shy away from failure, but we should be encouraging students to learn from the failure and try again rather than to quit. A video game like Variant Limits does just that. It gives students the opportunity to productively struggle, fail with no real world consequences, and then learn, try again, and get to 100% mastery

Creating and maintaining a video game is a large undertaking that requires time, as well as significant collaboration and funding, and may not be feasible or even advisable for faculty to attempt. As an alternative, he suggested the use of existing games, for example, repurposing TIC-TAC-TOE from a competitive game to a collaborative game that might be useful in teaching a concept in their course. Even better, students might develop a game themselves in small groups, and then ask another group to improve upon it. This reinforces the real-world practice of collaborating and building on another’s idea rather than throwing out that idea and starting from scratch.

If game-based learning (GBL) has piqued your interest, be sure to sign up for our 3-part workshop beginning Wednesday the 23rd titled, Level Up! Learning with Games and Gamification. GBL can be a useful pedagogical strategy for any course!

If you’d like to keep the GBL discussion going, post a comment on our new Faculty Teaching Commons. What are your thoughts about–and experiences with–GBL? Inquiring minds want to know!

If you’d like assistance incorporating GBL into your courses, one of our faculty developers or educational technology specialists are ready to help. Make an appointment here or email a CAT staff member directly.

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