How Digital Games Have Changed the Shape of Learning

A Seven-Part Series | Part Seven

Learning is most often viewed as a linear process. First, the thinking goes, students must be convinced they can do a task. For kids who question their ability to learn, this is a big stumbling block. It puts the onus on teachers to find ways to overcome doubt, negative self-image and prior failures.

Next, teachers are expected to discover a way for children to become self-motivated. They must show their students a connection to prior learning, or find an intrinsic appeal in the subject matter. Only after these two steps have been accomplished are students considered ready to move on to the final step: actually learning something new.

The drawback with this approach is its narrow perspective. It places too many steps in sequence, with too many preconditions. Loaded with roadblocks, it makes effective learning difficult. A better model is to think of instruction not as a straight line but as a circle, with entry possible at any spot along the circumference.

Such a model is not only more flexible, but also more inviting to children of varying interests and abilities. Now “do” can be an entry point—as well as “want to do.”

A circular model also increases the ways in which a child can be motivated. The video game industry has used this paradigm to great effect, changing the culture of an entire generation.

In this series of articles, we have looked at the seven keys to achieving the full benefit of digital learning games. They are comprehensive content; multiple points of entry; high engagement; a seamless gradient of challenges; a sense of control; short cycle of play; and the freedom to make mistakes. These ingredients can be applied to math instruction with an appeal that not only leverages the circular nature of learning, but also rivals the best video games.

One of the things video games do well, right from the start, is give players something easy to do. This is ideal for math as well. If, instead of “It’s math—I’m going to be judged,” the reaction is positive and non-judgmental, there is a continuous process of engagement. Mastery of one learning objective is immediately followed by another challenge that is slightly more rigorous; players are pushed on a gradient so they are always right on the edge of their comfort zone, where the active learning occurs.

As anyone who ever played a Super Mario game as a child knows, you were never told what to do. You explored and started doing easy things. Once successful, you proceeded to higher challenges. This is how rigor is introduced. By presenting math in the form of a game, students are given the opportunity to start playing from any point of entry—and mastery becomes the vehicle for progression. “Can do” or “can’t do” is no longer a stumbling block, and a gradient of challenges ensures that achieving mastery is attainable.

At its best, the circular approach provided by digital learning games can become a spiral, leading to higher and higher levels of math achievement. Negative, self-reinforcing attitudes can be broken—in fact, when kids experience multiple successes quickly, the question of “Do I quit, or do I continue?” often answers itself. Most choose the start button, not because the threat of a bad grade looms, but because they found they did better than they would have otherwise imagined.

One “I think I can do this,” followed by a reasonable degree of success, introduces a new feeling in students. In one hour, a well-designed digital game can reinforce this positive feeling 80 to 100 times over. Before long, these successes eliminate fear and create a new perspective—one that’s ideal for skills acquisition.

Many people believe there is no magic formula for math success—and they’re right. Digital learning games, as a category, are not the total answer. Yet when built correctly, such games provide a welcoming environment for the most effective element in math success: practice. Like playing baseball or learning the piano, math is a skill that requires practice. When digital learning games have all the right attributes in place, they become an immensely powerful tool, providing everything a child needs to practice, and taking away everything they don’t.

Best of all, these games allow “the system” to get out of the way so that children can do what they always do best—learn for themselves. In an era when schools are compelled to move the educational process forward like never before, such tools are no longer a quaint idea. They’re a proven building block that gets results.


Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.