The Virtual Learning Experience - Mission Prime

Building a new learning tool for calculus students

The Virtual Learning Experience (VLE) team housed within K20 Center’s Digital Game Based Learning program debuted its latest innovative learning tool in late spring 2014, with research indicating exciting potential for its effect on student comprehension and performance.

“I think our research was a hugely successful proof of concept; we took students who were rusty or shaky on some math concepts and put them in a game-like setting, and I think the results were a terrific sign that it worked really well,” said University of Oklahoma Mathematics associate professor Keri Kornelson and VLE consultant. “I think a game like Mission Prime could transform math classes.”

Mission Prime is designed to help Calculus students master the process of optimization, which faculty like Kornelson identified as especially challenging. The experience of playing Mission Prime requires students to solve a word problem in a 3D environment. The student must use objects described by the problem (provided within the environment) to assess changes to the system over time, view the objects within the problem from various angles, and ultimately build a function to find the problem solution.

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“One of the things that’s really missing in the way we teach math is instant feedback on problems,” Kornelson said. “Students work a problem, turn in their homework and get feedback much later, by which point they’re thinking about something else and therefore not able to benefit as much. With Mission Prime, feedback is instant, and that’s fantastic for an instructor.”

Additionally, Mission Prime is designed to prompt students to use multiple skills in their problem solving, which Kornelson compared to a bird house.

“The way we’ve been teaching math is like going to shop class and never building the birdhouse. You’re taught how to use the tools but you don’t use them in conjunction to produce anything. Mission Prime has a lot of power in that it puts students in a world where they’re using their calculus skills together, seeing how they relate to each other, and producing something useful,” Kornelson said.

Research and a unique opportunity for data-gathering

The VLE team tested Mission Prime’s efficacy against more “traditional” methods of math learning via an experiment in late April 2014. Dividing 125 OU math students into three groups – a treatment group which played Mission Prime for one hour, a group which did “traditional” calculus problems for one hour, and a control group which did nothing – the VLE team gauged each group’s aptitude with a test written by OU Math faculty.

Using Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) tests, the team found that playing one hour of Mission Prime was significantly more effective in improving learner understanding of calculus concepts than one hour of homework or no treatment.

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“It was surprising to me the game was significantly better because one drawback of game-based learning is that it takes longer to learn to play a game than just doing homework or quizzes. But with Mission Prime, just one hour of playing had the subjects performing significantly better,” said Co-Primary Investigator and Postdoctoral Researcher Yu-Hao Lee.

A unique aspect of the virtual learning experience as a research tool is its ability to track each student’s process, pinpointing the way they learn and giving their instructor insight into specific areas of difficulty. Researchers, meanwhile can use the same data to identify exactly what about the game is reaching students and possible areas for improvement.

“What (VLE researchers) are trying to figure out with our analysis of behavioral data is what role Mission Prime would best serve in the classroom – as a supplement to existing curriculum or a replacement of homework. It all depends on time and the results we expect to have by summer,” Lee said.

Numbers aside, Lee said students universally found Mission Prime preferable to homework based on its immersive, engaging challenge – this was even reflected in experiment results.

“We had some students who asked to stay past the allotted hour so they could finish the problems they were solving. We didn’t experience that with the group doing homework,” Lee said.

What’s next

The pilot success of the game has opened the doors to proper implementation as an instructional tool to be used on the calculus courses of the university. K20 DGBL anticipates that in the new cycle of production, new experiences in the frame of the Mission Prime game will continue.  There are other areas of Mathematics that lend themselves to the VLE model and Mission Prime is designed to be replicated for other mathematic concepts.