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Timed Activities: Stressful or Impactful?

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

There has been a lot of buzz about a specific game included in a popular online elementary curriculum. Here is the gist:


A tank is quickly losing water. Every question you answer correctly adds water to the tank. Can you fill the tank fast enough to keep it from emptying?


Sounds interesting enough, what is the divide? Math Anxiety. Many parents have shared that this activity causes their child a ton of stress. They opt to skip it, try to do the assignment for their child just to progress, or come back to it at a later time.


In this article, we hope to separate fact from fiction, provide parents and students with actionable steps they can take to make everyone feel a bit happier, and of course, play some games!


Let's Play

Before we get into all the gory details, it is best if you try out a similar game. What feelings are brought up when you play (good or bad)? How do you think your child would react to a similar game?

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How did it go? We will be honest, we made it a little hard (especially for a little one just learning these skills). Why would we do such a thing?!? Keep reading to find out.


The Good

Let's start with what is good about a mathematics game like this one. It's a game! Gaming has been shown to provide so many benefits to not only learning but developing a long term enjoyment of learning.

Have you ever participated in a promotional game? Big businesses do this all the time, because it works! McDonald's had their Monopoly game because it got people excited. They want to win, and to do that, well, you have to buy from McDonald's! Not only that, tons of companies use digital games in their training for new employees (Game On! Schaaf & Mohan). Papert (2002) writes "Good video games are hard work and deep fun. So is good learning."


The benefits of gamification are vast and well documented. At MathBait, we believe deeply in playing to learn and the research backs our approach. When students play, they not only learn a host of life-skills, they also have fun. There is no better way to learn than with joy. So what is going wrong in this case?


The Bad

One big issue with this game? The platform! This particular platform is tailored for advanced learners (top 10%) and this game is mixed into its normal storyline. What's that mean? First, advanced learners are often perfectionists. Winning isn't enough, they want full-stars on everything, they want every question to earn a green check mark and so when presented with this type of challenge, they can often become easily frustrated and shut down.


We've seen this ourselves in classes. Students break down in tears because they answered a single problem incorrectly. Unfortunately, the fix isn't an easy one. Becoming a skilled mathematician means you need to get very comfortable with failing. Very comfortable. If you haven't read our article: Teach Your Kids to Get Good at Failing, check it out! You'll learn about the most impressive mathematical feat of our time and just how much failing was required to achieve it!


The second problem with this particular platform's game, is that it is smack dab in the middle of their other activities. The other lessons and homework assignments are very different. They are ones where it is common for students to get all the questions right (often on the first try); where if they miss a question, they get a second chance and the ugly red they don't like to see transforms into perfect green circles. This means that students, especially younger ones, see this game as just another normal activity. They are used to perfection so when they can't beat this game right away, as it challenges them, they become more and more frustrated and more defeated.


The Ugly

What happens when little ones get defeated? They cry! They don't want to even try it.

Parents have shared account after account of this result and rightfully do whatever they can to improve the situation. After all, the last thing any parent wants is for their student to suddenly declare 'I hate math'.


While gamification can be incredibly beneficial to all learners, it is a tricky line to walk. Let's go back to our sample game. If you tried playing Greater Than and Addition or Multiplication, did you have a preference? Probably so. Greater than included buttons meaning entering the answer was just a click away while addition and multiplication required navigating sliders and arrows. This is the first key in any good game. How will players interact with it?


Tip #1

Thoughtful interaction design makes all the difference

One of the issues many parents face in the platform's game, is that students must type in their solutions. As this is an elementary curriculum, many students do not possess the fine motor skills to be able to quickly type. Parents can support their students and lower frustration by turning games like this into a team effort. Students verbally solve, while parents type solutions.


A key foundational element of any game is the storyline. In this example, why is the tank emptying? What do I get (other than a gold star) for filling it all the way up? While it may seem trivial, a good storyline can totally change a game. This is one of the most common slip-ups in educational games. Take the Order of Operation game available through ABCya. A large monetary investment was placed into the game's graphics. The backstory is a good one - you have to help the fox unlock the safe. However, why on Earth would the safe have long math problems 😂? ABCya has decided to focus their investment on graphics - make it look fun. Unfortunately, while mildly amusing, the game is nothing more than a fancy math worksheet. While it might keep students interested for a time or two, the lack of a deep and interesting story is a certain drawback.


Tip #2

A strong storyline is vital in a quality educational game


We mentioned before that one issue with the unnamed platform's tank game is that it is embedded between normal activities. This makes it challenging for students to see the game as something different. It is simply another assignment they want gold stars on. A strong storyline can turn that around. When students understand this is different than what came before and what is coming after, the stress of perfection and getting things right on the first try can melt away. It allows their brain to approach things from a new direction.


Our tip for parents? When a platform doesn't provide this, provide it for them. When your student arrives at the tank game, tell them in advance, "This is a special game that is very different from the activities you have done before. It is super-challenging, but I know you can do it! Don't expect to get it on the first try. This one will take some time and dedication, just like in a video game." In addition, if the game is missing a storyline (although not ideal) feel free to make one up! When students have a clear goal that isn't to get the answers right, you will find a whole new world where not only their abilities and their attitude shift, but an entirely new type of engagement.


To give you an idea, we redesigned the game. Now we have a storyline. Why is the tank emptying? Why do I need to fill it up? Is this believable? The addition of a lovable character can never hurt, especially in games designed for a younger audience.

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While our examples are simple games for the purposes of this article, we can still see some drastic differences in the first and second options. It is all about the willful suspension of disbelief. If a game can support students, even if slightly, getting out of the real-world and entering into something new and interesting, a mission they have to complete, a friend they need to help, it is likely to have a positive impact on players.


What Can Parents Do?

What do we say to all the parents who have reported such timed games cause stress and anxiety on their children, or the many teachers who have similar feelings? Well, The Science of Math lists "Timed Instructional Activities Cause Math Anxiety" as a common misconception stating, "No studies have determined that timed tests cause math anxiety - defined as feelings of apprehension, tension, or fear that may interfere with performance on math-related tasks. In fact, timed tactics improve math performance."


They back up their claims with a list of references from peer-reviewed and reputable publications. So is what parents are seeing not real? Of course not! The particular platform we are referring to is marketed at high-achieving students, so many of these parents are actually dealing with something very different than anxiety from timed activities. They are dealing with perfectionism. Having worked with many high-achieving students, we know this is not something to 'fix' or that can instantly get better. It is a part of who these learners are. What can parents do?


Parents Can Make Failing Cool


Is that possible? Will that backfire or have unintended consequences? Not likely. Rather than encouraging a student to fail, remind them (and remind them often) that failing - especially in mathematics - is a badge of honor. Then encourage them to consider what they learned from their mistake and how much more powerful that knowledge makes them. The best news? Games are the perfect place to help students feel a little more comfortable in being uncomfortable. Steven Wheeler writes,

"Game-based learning can be so much fun it becomes addictive and as such is a really important tool for learners. Games enable learners to suspend reality and to make mistakes and learn from them. Learning from failure is a hugely important transferable skill for 21st century learning."

That's right! High-achieving students already struggle with perfectionism, by allowing them to let loose in game form, parents are not only supporting their children academically, but also helping them to develop important real-world skills. (Teach Your Kids to Get Good at Failing).


The struggle however in this case is also the platform. A student may have no problem losing a life in Super Mario World, but have a big problem losing an activity on their math platform. The solution? Parents should preface these activities for students.


Parents Can Set Their Own Expectations


When your student arrives at a time-based challenge such as the game discussed here, take a moment to talk to them before they begin. Let them know that this activity is a game, it isn't like the other lessons where you try to earn a gold star. Let them know they might not win the first time, a good game isn't fun if it is too easy! The goal here is to persevere, to keep trying until you are successful. It isn't about getting it right at first, it's about showing you have the ability to work through a challenge.


Okay, I reminded my kid that failing is okay. When they got to the activity I set it up so they knew it might take them a few tries. They tried and tried for an hour, weren't successful, and are in tears. Now what? Whoa! Let's not let it get that far! As beneficial as both games, and the use of a timer can be in educational settings, no activity is worth an upset kiddo! Our final tip is to consider the level of challenge.


The ability to quickly add, subtract, multiply, or divide is a very useful skill. A good curriculum (like the platform we are discussing) will build up problem-solving techniques for students to use. For example, when adding 88+76, many students will use the standard algorithm. They likely need paper and pencil to line the numbers up vertically, find that 8+6=14, carry the one, and compute 8+7+1=16 to finish out the problem. In a well-designed game (or any other similar instructional activity, particularly with a timer) this is not the goal. The goal is instead to build fluency using various techniques. In this case, students could instead add 100 to 76 to quickly find 176. Then, knowing they counted 12 too many, cut it back down to 164. Or maybe they give away 4 from 88 to the 76 to have the nicer problem 84+80.


If your student has given the game a good go a few times and is still not successful, consider asking them to share how they are solving. Go back through the curriculum to practice the different strategies before giving it another go. Students may also find it helpful to come back to the activity later, after they have more practice with the content. In general, these types of timed games are to test mastery - that's the highest level of understanding. How and when each student gets to this level will vary. You might be very surprised when a student who previously struggled comes back and easily beats the game on the first try after simply having an extra week or two to get comfortable with the material.


Parents Should Asses the Challenge Level


At MathBait, we use timers as an element of gamification - think back to the many board games that came with a nice hourglass packaged in. However, how you use a timer makes a world of difference. In the games here, the goal is to demonstrate mastery, but when timers are utilized on a learning activity (when students are still new to the concepts) care must be taken on how the game is designed.


For example, we often provide learners with the option of different levels. Check out our sample game Pointers. This game is designed to help students build familiarity with the coordinate plane. As so much in mathematics utilizes this plane, mastery is very important, otherwise every new concept becomes a multiple-step mountain to climb if students must first decode the plane before even beginning to decode the question asked. In Pointers, students can select the level of difficulty. Students new to the coordinate plane can start at a lower level and as they gain familiarity work their way up, while students more confident in their skills can set the level where it is challenging but still fun.


Conclusion

Research does not support the idea that timed activities increase stress or anxiety in mathematics. That doesn't mean that timed activities don't cause your students stress. Some timed activities (like tests for instance) bring on feelings of apprehension for different reasons. In this article, we focused on timed-based games and the many benefits they provide.


Utilizing games in learning has many documented benefits. But not all games are created equal. It is important for game designers to consider the age of the learners and their motor skills to ease navigation as much as possible. One of the most important aspects of a good educational game is its ability to take students out of the real world and transport them into a new land. When a game is simply a glorified worksheet, or seems to be just another graded assignment, students don't feel comfortable enough to get messy and make mistakes. If I don't beat the next level of Tetris on my first try, I don't have to worry about my mom being mad at me, my grades dropping, my ability to get into a good college vanishing, and all the other icky feelings that school markings can bring about in children. A good storyline and the suspension of disbelief, no matter how small, can make a world of difference. If parents are noticing their children struggling on an activity like this one, giving them 'permission' to fail can be enough to totally change the narrative.


Finally, a good game sets a good level of challenge. Games in which students may select their difficultly level in advance are excellent options. When this is not an option, parents can support their children by helping make sure they are comfortable with the prerequisite skills the game is targeting, or allow their children to sit with the material a bit longer. Even a student who is excellent at multiplication may struggle on a timed multiplication game! Their brain is being forced to process multiple things at once. While this dual-processing is a good thing, it also requires a higher-level of understanding that can be easily missed. Parents and teachers may be surprised to see that a student who at first struggled on a game like this, can beat it with ease given a little more time and chances to continue building familiarity with the concept.


Don't forget to order your copy of Marco the Great and the History of Numberville! It supports students in building a deep conceptual understanding of the topics covered and includes access to over 40 digital games (some with timers) for students to enjoy the art of mathematics and have a blast leveling up their skills.


Not Convinced? Hear it from Cordell!


References

Game On! Using Digital Games to Transform Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. R.L. Schaaf & N. Mohan. (2017).


Hard Fun. S. Papert (2002). www.papert.org/articles/HardFun.html


10 key learning trends for 2013. D. Tutin (2012). (S. Wheeler quote as cited in).


Common misconceptions: Timed tests (and other instructional activities) cause math anxiety. Advocates for the Science of Math (2018).


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