Can Games and Digital Tools Help Students Take Fewer Tests?

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Motion Math has been trying to solve a tough problem: Can digital tools assess for student mastery within the content so that students don’t have to take so many tests?

The San Francisco startup is trying to crack the puzzle with the help of a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, which is a follow-up to a previous $348,000 grant it received from the Gates and Noyce foundations in December 2013.

The first grant went towards building a tool that measures how students' use of math apps, including Motion Math games, correlate to their performance on mini-assessments taken afterwards. Initial tests with thousands of students suggest such a tool can be built, according to Coram Bryant, the company’s Head of Data and Analytics. “We’ve built the infrastructure to automatically measure, over time, which activities correlate with improved mastery of Common Core standards, without a costly or invasive formal study." Here's a preliminary result comparing how the tool correlates time spent on a Motion Math game to mastery of a couple specific standards:

For the tool to be rigorous, it will need to be tested with many other digital math content providers. “We want to make sure our SDK [software development kit] is useful not just for games, but videos and other interactive activities,” says CEO, Jacob Klein. Ultimately, if digital content can serve as an accurate proxy for tests, then “over time you need fewer mini-assessments, because you can correlate that data with mastery,” says CEO Jacob Klein. The results could be a boon for “students who are tested way too much.”

The $1 million grant will allow Motion Math to explore another problem: how to accurately measure—and increase—student effort on assessments embedded in digital content. The goal, according to Bryant, is “to improve student mindsets when they take assessments and when they engage in learning activities.”

Already, Klein has seen evidence to suggest that reframing the wording of a question can make a difference. He cites, as one example, that changing from “you”-centered language (“Tell us what you know”) to an “us”-centered approach (“Help us improve the platform with your responses”) can boost student effort by five percent. A recent study from PERTs, a Stanford University research center, suggests that using “growth mindset” language can improve student proficiency.

“When students believe math ability can grow, it's transformative,” said Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education and advisor to Motion Math, in a company release. “This is a promising platform for measuring which activities help improve student mindset.”

By the end of the two-year grant, Motion Math hopes to offer a single platform where, in the words of Bryant: “A student will see patterns in his or her effort or unexplored learning challenges. A teacher will find digital materials for his or her students that have proven effective for similar students in similar classrooms. And developers will experiment with A/B tests to improve product efficacy.”

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