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Game Based Learning – Is it only “Drill and Kill”?

Games are one way to provide math practice to students.  I have used math games for about sixteen years with students.  In the past, these games were applications installed on our computers, but today, there are many games available on the Internet that will allow your students a chance to practice their math skills.  In the past, I have cringed at some games  either because they were boring drill and kill games, or because they were so flashy that students enjoyed getting wrong answers to see what kind of explosion would happen on the screen. Today however as I observe students playing, I believe that designers are doing a much better job of encouraging the conceptual understanding of math, while also giving students a fun way to practice and master important math skills.
In this post I will focus on two free online programs, Xtra Math and Sumdogs.  I have been using both of these programs with my fourth grade students.  I think these programs would be appropriate for students as early as second grade.  Xtramath is a fact practice game.  Students do about five minutes of math facts practice.  The goal in this program is to have each math fact answered in three seconds or less. If a student can answer at this speed, teachers say they have automaticity or fluency with math facts.  I like the program because it is very easy to follow for every student. An on screen teacher named Mr. C. is there to help them and encourage them as they progress.  From the teacher point of view, the program is very easy to set up and once the kids begin using the program there is a log on screen that keeps track of who has had a turn and who still needs to take a turn.  The log on screen works in a computer  lab or as a station on class computers.  I use the program in the lab and on my three class computers.  Students can also get a code to use on their home computer so they can do the program at home and I can keep track of how they are doing.  When students have reached mastery, there are certificates the teacher can print out for them.

Sumdogs is not as intuitive for the teacher to set up but it also allows students to use the program in a variety of settings.  There is more variety to the games in Sumdogs and perhaps the coolest feature is that students compete against other students who are using the program at the same time.  Students do not compete using their full names, and they do not communicate with others except by viewing the other students’ progress.  Though I would need to do more research to prove my idea, I believe the program is designed in a way that builds both conceptual thinking around math along with skill practice.

The popular game Junk Pile is an example.  In this game students choose the correct answer to a problem and drag the answer, which turns into a piece of junk, to the junk pile.  (Picture old couches, broken microwave ovens, toilets, stuff kids really like!)  The student must find the best way to stack his or her pile of junk so it does not topple over.  This leads me to the idea that more math related skills are being built than simply facts and operations.
These are the two games I am currently using with my students to practice math.  If I had a budget to explore more robust options, I would probably look into use of Wowzers.  It is important to me that I be able to view each student’s progress in these programs and I also want to know who has taken his or her turns as the students are supposed to do regularly.
If you have other online games you recommend, please share a bit about why you like them in a message below.

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