10 minutes per day. 2 months. That’s how long students played the video game Wuzzit Trouble before showing dramatic gains in math.

Can this be true? Stanford University says, yes it can.

In the white paper Stanford published about their results, it is clear the authors were surprised by the dramatic result. As a consequence, and being careful academics, most of the paper was dedicated to methodology and the rigor of the experiment, as one might expect from one of the premier research institutions in the world.

Which I like, because it leaves me, as a math mom and gamer mom, the freedom to celebrate the outcome and to ask my kids to play games for at least 10 minutes a day. Win-win. I am always swayed by the authentic experience of a teacher:

My 5th period class, which is involved in the study, is an inclusion class with students with learning disabilities. On the last quiz I gave, the percentage of students receiving an A or B grade in this class was [only] one percentage less than those receiving an A or B grade in my Honors class which is filled with students in the gifted an talented program and my schools science magnet program. When I shared the results with my 5th period they attributed their success to how hard they had been working to learn the math. Before the study, these same students had the lowest achievement on a quiz and attribute their low scores to their ability, using phrases like, “We’re the dumb class”

So why did Brainquake’s Wuzzit Trouble have such an impact? The Standford paper, carefully without attributing any of these effects directly, did mention 3 elements that could contribute:

  1. Student engagement. Engagement is known to be a significant factor in learning. A welldesigned video game creates a deep level of engagement rarely generated in a typical mathematics classroom.
  1. Players in a video game quickly learn to adopt an iterative approach involving exploratory trial-and-error, reflection on failure, and subsequent adaptation. This results in a positive, “can do” attitude that Stanford researcher Carol Dweck demonstrated has an enormous effect on performance.
  1. Game design. A well designed video game will lead to rapid, deep acquisition of whatever skills are intrinsically required to succeed in the game. A key word in that sentence is intrinsic. As Gee, Devlin, and others have observed, in order for a good video game to yield significant learning of X, the game has to be built tightly around X — essentially, the game mechanic has to be a dynamic representation of X. DragonBox does that with symbolic algebra (solving single variable, linear equations); Wuzzit Trouble does it with integer arithmetic, general problem solving skills, and algorithmic thinking. Few other video games adopt this approach.

However, as I wrote on Getting Smart, I believe there is more to it. As a parent, not as an academic who is responsible for carefully evaluating evidence, it is clear to me that thinking hard about wicked math problems makes my kids stronger in rigorous reasoning. Will this be true for every kid everywhere? I don’t know, but consider Project K-Nect.

Project K-Nect was one of the early mobile learning pilots in North Carolina. The students in the study were the ones who weren’t expected to go to college, but rather to go to work on the family fishing boat after high school. However, the changes that occurred in the classroom while conducting the study led to significantly higher test scores (up to 50% higher) and kids who have recently entered college with an interest in math, engineering, or science.

Most salient for this discussion is the (admittedly anecdotal) assertion that students’ overall reasoning skills improve and affected their performance in the rest of their classes.

As the ruling elite once played chess to hone their strategic and reasoning skills, my kids get to play Wuzzit Trouble – a “hard fun” way to become stronger thinkers overall.