Technology can be a mixed blessing in the classroom, but can educational apps be harnessed to boost test scores? This is a question educators are hoping to answer. With diverse educational offerings ranging from single apps to entire educational suites, educators are forced to ferret out the good from the bad in an effort to increase their reach in the classroom.

One thing we know for sure, students are definitely interested in digital games even if they are educational in nature. Some 97 percent of students play games and are more than comfortable with the platform. With such a large percentage of game-savvy students, researchers want to know, do games REALLY help boost test scores?

A new SRI study released suggests they do — at least in the subjects of science, math, engineering, and technology. According to the report, which is an analysis of 77 peer-reviewed journal articles of students K-16 studying STEM subjects, “when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies.”

More specifically, “students at the median in the control group (no games) could have been raised 12 percent in cognitive learning outcomes if they had received the digital game.”

Another way to explain it: “For a student sitting in the median who doesn’t have a game, his or her learning achievement would have increased by 12 percent if he or she had that game,” said Ed Dieterle, Senior Program Officer for Research, Measurement, and Evaluation for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the SRI report.

Simulations have an even bigger impact, according to this analysis. When considering simulations — taking a phenomena, process, or behavior and coding it into something that can be manipulated and studied — improvement index jumped to 25 percent, meaning students who used simulations could have increased their learning outcomes by that amount.

Which begs the question, how do we define learning outcomes? According to Stacey Childress, deputy director of education at the Gates Foundation, learning outcomes can be defined in a few ways: progress toward mastery of a particular set of content and skill objectives in areas such as math and literacy; demonstration of complex skills like collaboration and critical thinking; and improvement in what researchers call “non-cognitive” skills such as persistence and grit.

“With learning games, it’s important to understand which kinds of outcomes they are designed to improve and whether or not students are actually making progress on those dimensions,” Childress said.

The Gates Foundation has made huge investments in the educational gaming world. Last year, the foundation launched the Games Learning and Assessment Lab (GlassLab), which was tasked with prototyping and developing games and formative assessments. The work is being conducted by the Institute of Play, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson, Inc., Electronic Arts (EA), and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). GlassLab recently released, SimCityEdu, which integrates assessments aligned with Common Core State Standards. The educational version uses the same code as the commercial game, but with the addition of using students’ choices during challenges as a method of assessment, though not all education experts agree that assessment should be built into games.

The foundation has also invested in The Center for Game Science and the Radix Endeavor at MIT with the intent to develop games that embed valid assessment measures.

For this analysis, SRI considered reports from a gamut of sources in those 77 studies — going as far back as a 1992 study from The Journal of Educational Research looking at the effects of computer simulations and problem-solving approaches on high school students, to a 2006 study in the journal Interactive Learning Environments using just-in-time information to support scientific discovery learning in a computer-based simulation.

Other studies examined include one from 2011 that compares different versions of a game in terms of the degree to which the learning mechanics and goals are integrated directly into the central game mechanics (intrinsic design) versus separating the learning mechanics and goals from the central game mechanic (extrinsic design); and another from 2012 that compares different approaches to socially organizing players within a game in terms of collaboration and competition to maximize learning. The games within each study were developed specifically for research purposes, and thus are not as elaborate as some commercial titles like SimCity, but are solid examples of learning games, according to Dieterle.*

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