Game-Based Learning: The Key to Improved Math Engagement

Does making math fun produce better results?



By Brandon Koebel

2015 EQAO data indicates that Ontario’s current math strategy is not working. Only 35% of students in the Applied Stream agree that they like mathematics, and 21% say that math is their favourite subject (EQAO, 2015).

The traditional math classroom can be summarized using a simple recipe:

  1. Teacher-centred lesson
  2. Worksheet
  3. Repeat

This repetitive cycle has resulted in disengagement, a lack of interest, and negative feelings about math education. Game-based learning may make mathematics a more engaging process.

A New Generation

With technology integrated into every aspect of modern-society, educational practices must evolve to remain current and relevant to students in the 21st century. This sentiment is captured perfectly in a 2010 study by The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership: “Teachers who use technology frequently to support learning in their classrooms report greater benefits to student learning, engagement and skills from technology than teachers who spend less time using technology to support learning” (Walden University, 2010). Why not use technology to build an engaging, learner-focused approach to math instruction?

Game-based is an interesting possibility. Here are two examples you may wish to consider in your math classroom:


Knowledgehook is an online mathematics platform first released in 2013. Its premise was simple, “Education would be enhanced through gamification because students would want to join in and have fun while learning” (Moreira, 2015). The program can be accessed on any mobile device with an internet browser, making it easy to incorporate in schools operating on a BYOD policy. Knowledgehook’s user-friendly interface based on the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum provides educators with an easy-to-integrate platform that increases engagement, provides instant student and teacher feedback, and provides students the opportunity to practice skills outside of class. Students participate in collaborative blended-learning through a game show-style competition featuring a leaderboard and achievement badges.


Prodigy is an online platform that captures student interest through its video-game design. The program incorporates the curriculum, and allows students to work on differentiated tasks at their own pace. Prodigy includes lesson content, formative feedback and assessment tools.

Should everything be a game?

Opponents to the recent inquiry-based math approach suggest that a more “back to basics” math strategy will produce better student learning and retention. Perhaps our attraction to game-based learning, technology-enabled learning, and inquiry have derailed mathematics. Anna Stokke, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg, states “tackling math instruction through direct learning may be more repetitive, but ultimately more successful. When information in our working memory is sufficiently practised, it is then committed to long-term memory, after which it may be recalled later.” (The Canadian Press, 2015).

No. It doesn’t make sense for every aspect of every day to be game-based. However, game-based learning has shown positive results. Supporters of the game-based learning movement identify positive outcomes including, “increased engagement and motivation and…social learning” (Christy & Fox, 2014).


Christy, K. & Fox, J. (2014). Leaderboards in a virtual classroom: A test of stereotype threat and social comparison explanations for women’s math performance. Computers & Education, 78, 66-77. Retrieved from

Moreira, P. (2015). Knowlegehook Nears New Funding. Retrieved from

The Canadian Press. (2015). Canada’s math teachers should get back to basics, report says. The Canadian Press.

The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership (2010). Educators, Technology and 21st Century Skills: Dispelling Five Myths. Retrieved from

Author: bkoebel92

Brandon Koebel is passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of youth. He is a secondary math teacher in Ontario and is currently working towards his Master of Education degree with a focus on education and digital technology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (Oshawa). Brandon is particularly interested in meaningful mobile technology integration. Brandon serves as Vice Chair on the Hanover and District Hospital Board of Governors, and was previously a Governor at Trent University. In his spare time, Brandon enjoys water skiing, swimming, CrossFit and running.

7 thoughts on “Game-Based Learning: The Key to Improved Math Engagement”

  1. Hi Brandon, I think you hit the nail on the head with your assessment of traditional math classes, I myself am guilty of perhaps too much direct instruction in some of my units and lessons. Gamification is an interesting avenue to explore, but I have not seen any evidence that has been able to swing me to the gamification side of teaching and learning. The idea of making math (and learning in general) fun is obviously a good idea, but I think adding gaming elements like points and leader boards are setting some students up for failure. I dug up the following article from Ed Tech Magazine, the magazine as a whole deals with issues in higher education but I think the pros and cons in this type of learning would be valid regardless of what sector of education you teach in. Issues such as intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation and the feeling of never being able to catch the leader on the leader board are obvious road blocks to gamification of a classroom. It would be interesting to see a gamified, tribes-based classroom though. The feeling of never being able to catch the leader would be diminished and you bring in all kinds of social learning into the mix. Something to think about. Great post Brandon!


    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for your comments. The Ed Tech Magazine article is quite interesting, and I appreciate you taking the time to find this. I like how the article points to both pros and cons of gamification. The comment about extrinsic motivation is interesting. I had not previously considered the leaderboard and badges in this way. When I reflect on the use of Knowledgehook in my class I can see that the badges, while somewhat motivating, are not building a love for the math content.

      Thanks again David!


  2. Math is a hot topic in our house, I have a grade 4 student and grade 9 student, and their experiences and level of comprehension and ability differ dramatically. Despite their ages, they have had two different experiences, one is actively able to use digital games in class math (after his worksheets are done) and the other is exposed to the traditional lesson you mention above without the inclusion of classroom games or technology supports. My grade 4 loves math, can’t wait to be challenged and is happily hooked on Prodigy, Cool Math Games and our newest addition Osmo Numbers, my grade 9 is in the dining room trying to re-do a quiz on integers (an otherwise straight-A student) after flunking her first quiz ever. I can’t say as a parent I want them to rely on games to learn math, but I encourage the blending of both and hope that my older child has the chance to experience math in a fun format enabling her to see problem-solving in a different, less stressful light. Great post! I will be exploring more “at home” options to help my kids explore math in their own time using engaging games and technology.


    1. Hi Shannon,
      I find it very interesting that you are able to see both sides of this argument within your own household. When I taught Grade 5/6 last year Prodigy was a huge hit and certainly an engaging platform. With my recent move to the Secondary panel, I have tried to find similarly engaging platforms that are suitable for the teenage crowd. Grade 9 is certainly different from the elementary panel, and can be a challenge. I agree with you that it is critically important that educators shape math in a more engaging way, so that students develop a love for problem solving. This keen interest in mathematics will greatly help students as they move into more abstract concepts.

      Thanks for sharing. Please let me know if I can be of any help finding engaging, curriculum focused, platforms for Gr. 9. Brandon


  3. Brandon, your post really touches on some of the concerns that I have for my students and my own children.
    Using tools like Prodigy are a great way to engage kids and keep them interested in mathematics, or any subject area for that matter. I have witnessed the energy and enthusiasm that they display when they begin to use a gaming app.

    I have also found in my own classroom, though, that several students seem to engage only so far before becoming frustrated and dropping off. In the case of recreational gaming, children have the option of pressing pause, stopping and restarting games or dropping out before the game is over. This provides them with power over the game, but sometimes may reinforce their tendency to quit when things get tough. When recently using Kahootit with my students, I noticed that most students maintained their buy-in until they saw that the leader was way ahead in the game. Instead of finishing, they simply dropped out of the game rather than finish with a lower score.

    Gaming seems to work well at engage students while the technology is new and exciting, but I wonder about what evidence there is out there about the retention of students over the long term as content becomes more complex? How can we encourage students who struggle in mathematics to persevere?


    1. I agree that gamification and leaderboards can have negative outcomes for some students. That is why I like to use a combination of whole group games (such as Knowledgehook Gameshow) as well as individually-paced activities (such as Knowledgehook Mission). I tried Kahoot for the first time yesterday and I had a similar activity. Once one student took a significant lead others were far less motivated as they knew they would not catch up.

      Thanks for sharing your experience as well.


  4. I agree with Shannon about blending technology. Yet, I still think gamification makes math only a little more engaging for students but does it really have an effect on learning? I do not favor the use of math games for technology integration in the classroom. I think these games should be additional exercises and resources for students. Instead, the students can find their own creative ways of peer-teaching or be solving math problems and demonstrating them with the help of technology by creating content or create storyboards with Snapchat and demonstrating the solution. I think this would have a more impact on learning and we would be making use of Community of Practice and Social Learning models instead of repetitive computer games. What do you think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s