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Researchers create computer game that can help improve children’s maths and science achievement

27 September 2019

Researchers from UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and Birkbeck, University of London, have developed a computer game for teachers to use, that will help primary school children to overcome their previous beliefs in maths and science lessons and learn correct concepts.

Kids on iPad

Absorbing new ideas in maths and science often involves overcoming pre-existing incorrect beliefs. For example, when learning that the earth is round, children have to first overcome the compelling belief that it is flat. 

Research investigating brain activation of adults completing maths and science problems shows that this need to inhibit pre-existing beliefs is true even for science experts. It is not that experts have completely replaced their naive beliefs with new more advanced scientific ideas, but rather that experts have become better at inhibiting those early beliefs to allow the more advanced scientific ideas to come to the fore.

A large-scale randomised control trial was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and Wellcome to test the efficiency of the computer game called ‘Stop and Think’. 6672 children from Year 3 (7- to 8-year-olds) and Year 5 (9- to 10-year-olds) in 89 schools across England took part in the study. Pupils who participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the lessons-as-usual control group. 

To check whether this impact was due to the ‘Stop and Think’ game specifically, or was a result of the extra pupil engagement and motivation arising from having a novel and fun computer-based activity at the start of lessons more generally, schools were offered an alternative computer-based programme that did not include any content from ‘Stop and Think’. 

Pupils who received ‘Stop and Think’ also made more progress than pupils in this ‘active’ control group. A majority of teachers felt that ‘Stop and Think’ had a positive impact on the mathematical and science abilities of the pupils in their class.

The cost of using ‘Stop and Think’ is very low and is estimated to be a little over £5 per child over a three-year period. Further development and evaluation of the ‘Stop and Think’ computer game is underway.

Professor Denis Mareschal (Birkbeck, University of London), Principal Investigator of the UnLocke project, said:

“This project illustrates how findings from cognitive neuroscience, when properly interpreted, can have a positive impact on educational practice and outcomes.

“‘Stop and Think’ demonstrates the effectiveness of computer-based learning activities designed around evidenced-based educational practices in the modern classroom.”

Professor Kaska Porayska-Pomsta (UCL Knowledge Lab), Co-investigator, said:

“The project findings provide a solid basis for considering how technology may be designed to support key aspects of children’s learning as part of classroom practices. Based on feedback from teachers, the team is now working to improve the UnLocke environment and to develop adaptive learning support to individual children.”

Teachers involved in the study said:

“It allowed me to develop my understanding of how the children in my class learn and to analyse what they know, how clearly they understand concepts and to identify misconceptions that children in my class have.”

“It gave me an insight into how children’s ideas can change when given thinking time and how they are able to reason as to why something is right or wrong.” 

The research was led by Professor Denis Mareschal from Birkbeck College and involved IOE researchers Dr Sveta Mayer, Professor Kaska Porayska-Pomsta and Professor Andrew Tolmie who are part of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN). CEN is a collaboration between Birkbeck, University of London; UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience; and the UCL Institute of Education. This project was developed in partnership with LEARNUS.

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