Playing Games to support Mathematical Problem Solving

This project examines the role of different forms of feedback on students’ learning and engagement with mathematics.  We have designed different versions of an immersive videogame, called Boone’s Meadow, to better understand how different forms of feedback (feedback that is directly tied to the story or directly tied to conceptual content), as well as the timing of when feedback is given (in relation to major assessment moments) are related to how students actually work with the mathematical content (engagement) and what they eventually come to understand (learning).

In this project we ask how the narrative of game play might be related to the content-specific aspects of disciplinary learning, and how we might develop forms of feedback that help us to better understand these relations.  Building on Kluger & DeNisi, we have started to think about feedback as attunement tools; that is, tools that help attune students to aspects of their performance that are relevant to their overall success. Based on previous work (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010; Barab et al., 2012; Gresalfi & Barab, 2011) we propose that both the narrative context of the game AND the disciplinary content of the game are important foci for attunement—but how these are different, and how these relate to overall learning and engagement—is the focus of this grant.

A seemingly more procedural question involves the actual presentation of this feedback, and how it is situated in the context of the overall problem solving activity. In videogames, we traditionally offer feedback to players after they have engaged the difficult task, thus giving them information about how well that particular task was solved. This feedback can be considered to be formative in that games are replayable and thus players can build on that feedback when they try again. However, our work has suggested that sometimes feedback can be an important part of the actual problem solving procedure; it can serve to create a need for the very kinds of disciplinary engagement that we are seeking to support. Thus, an important question involves not just what forms of feedback might be most important, but also, how that feedback could be most productively integrated into the overall problem solving process.

Click on the image below to see a brief video that gives an overview of the game:

Current papers and presentations from and about this project are below, please feel free to e-mail us with requests for anything you would like to read.

  • Gresalfi, M.S., & Barnes, J. (2015). Designing Feedback in an Immersive Videogame: Supporting Student Mathematical Engagement. Educational Technology Research and Development.
  • Gresalfi, M.S., & Barab, S.A. (2011). Learning for a reason: Supporting forms of engagement by designing tasks and orchestrating environments. Theory into Practice, 50, 300-310.
  • Barab, S.A., Gresalfi, M.S., & Ingram-Goble, A. (2010). Transformational Play: Using Games to Position Person, Content, and Context. Educational Researcher.
  • Gresalfi, M.S., Barnes, J.L., & Pettyjohn, P. (2011). Why videogames are not teacher-proof: The central role of the teacher when using new technologies in the classroom. In G. Vincenti & J. Braman (Eds.), Multi-User Virtual Environments for the Classroom: Practical Approaches to Teaching in Virtual Worlds (pp. 267-284). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  • Gresalfi, M.S., Barab, S., Siyahhan, S., Christensen, T. (2009). Virtual worlds, conceptual understanding, and me: Designing for Critical engagement. On the Horizon, 17,1, 21-34.
  • Bell, A.M., & Gresalfi, M.S. (2015) Student problem solving strategies in inventing with contrasting cases. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Chicago IL.
  • Gresalfi, M. S., & Barnes, J. (2012). Consequential Feedback as a Means of Supporting Student Engagement and Understanding. In J. van Aalst, K. Thompson, M. J. Jacobson & P. Reimann (Eds.), The Future of Learning: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (pp. 403-410). Sydney, Australia: International Society of the Learning Sciences.
  • Gresalfi, M.S., & Barnes, J. (2012). Motivation as joint accomplishment: Narrative and content. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Vancouver, Canada.
  • Barab, S.A., Gresalfi, M.S., Ingram-Goble, A., & Arici, A. (2012). Playing with theory to build a theory of play.  Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Vancouver, Canada.


Feedback as an Element of Designed Environment: An Exploration of Structure and Context.  Grant # DRL-1252380 from the National Science Foundation, to Melissa Gresalfi and Sasha Barab (2013-2016).

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