Level Up: Video Games for Learning Algebra

Nov 13, 2012 by

Last week I gave a presentation at AMATYC about video games for learning algebra. As usual, Mat Moore did a fantastic illustration for the prezi.

It was staged in five levels:

  • Level 1: Why use games?
  • Level 2: What is a game? (manipulatives, puzzles, and games)
  • Level 3: Become a Math Game Critic
  • Level 4: Play GOOD Games
  • Level 5: Good Algebra Video Games?

You can click through the Prezi below.


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Coming out of the Closet: I’m a Game Designer!

Nov 12, 2012 by

I don’t even really know how to begin here. For the last three years I’ve been working on a secret little project that I wasn’t allowed to talk about in public (NDA). I’ve been designing digital games for learning algebra in my (ha ha) free time. The last couple months have been an absolutely insane flurry of activity as we approached the launch date and as a result, I haven’t posted much. Finally I can tell you that I’m no longer a wannabe game designer. I’ve designed four game apps that are now out in the iPad App store! I’m out of the closet and able to talk about it!

There are three years of stories to tell here about the development process, but I’m still recovering from launch week. So if you’re dying to see, here are the apps:

  • Algeboats Lite is a taste of our resource management game for learning how to evaluate expressions. [Note: Full version is not yet available.]
  • Algeburst: Topics in Algebra is a classic match-3 game for simplifying expressions, solving simple equations and inequalities, and using exponent rules.
  • Algeburst: Topics in Arithmetic is a classic match-3 game for pre-algebra arithmetic, including signed numbers, fractions, decimals, and order of operations.
  • Algeburst Lite will give you 12 free levels to try out the game (6 levels of arithmetic, 6 levels of algebra).

To see videos and screenshots from the games, please head on over to the Facebook pages: Algeburst or Algeboats and give us a LIKE!



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Exponent Block and Factor Pair Block

Apr 9, 2011 by

A few weeks ago I built two new games for algebra in one week.  These games just use the game mechanic from “Antiderivative Block” (a Calculus game), but with algebra-oriented game cards.  The game mechanic is a classic “get 4-in-a-row” so it’s pretty easy to learn.

Exponent Block (plus Gameboard) will help students contrast slightly different expressions involving exponent rules, especially negative and zero exponents.

Factor Pair Block (plus Gameboard) will help prepare students for a unit on factoring.  There are two sets of playing cards (print each set on a different color of paper if you want to be able to easily separate them).  The first set of cards works with factor pairs for natural numbers and finding the GCF for two numbers.  The second set of cards helps students start to see the GCF for monomials.

Supplies: I have found that it’s worth the investment in some bags of “marble markers” to play these (and other) games.  These can generally be found at a store like Hobby Lobby or JoAnn’s Fabric.  I’ve included markers that you can cut out and use, but trust me, that’s a pain.  It is also very helpful to print the game cards (two-sided) on cardstock, so if you don’t have a ready supply of cardstock in multiple colors, I’d pick some of those up too.  Last, small plastic bags are going to be a necessity to hold the sets of cards.

It’s interesting to watch the students play these games. Many students who seem to be uninterested in learning the fine differences between expressions in normal circumstances land in deep explanations of why these expressions simplify differently when playing the game.

Expect that students will play two ways.  Some will play the intended game mechanic, playing competitively to get four-in-a-row.  Other groups will play to “fill the board” … frankly, I can’t see what’s fun about this, but it never fails that at least two pairs of students do this.  One alternate play method that would allow you to “fill the board” would be to try to keep playing so that neither partner creates a four-in-a-row.  Then the players work collaboratively to try to create a filled gameboard where there are no wins.

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Prime Number Manipulatives

Feb 19, 2010 by

tcm_blog_button2For those of you who are curious what we were actually doing in class in yesterday’s post (Record with a Document Camera and a Flip), we were “fingerprinting” the factors of composite numbers with their prime compositions. The wooden “prime number tiles” are created using the backs of Scrabble tiles and the white tiles you see on the board are the student version of the prime number tiles (each of them cut out a sheet of their own prime number tile manipulatives at the beginning of class).  Just for the record, I would like to confess to destroying more than 5 Scrabble games in the last 6 months.

I tell students that the prime numbers are like the building blocks of the whole numbers, in the same way that the nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) are the building blocks of DNA. It was ironic, then, that at the end of our prime factorization fingerprinting, the board looked (to me) the way an agarose gel electrophoresis looks.


You can also use the prime number tiles to line up the prime factorizations of two numbers (leaving spaces when the prime is not in both numbers) and read the GCF as the intersection of the two lines of tiles and the LCM as the union of the two lines of tiles.



I’ve tried explaining these concepts in writing before (circling common factors and using colors or highlighting to show the steps), but the ability to easily rearrange the prime numbers after they’ve been found makes all the difference.  Students find the prime factorization using a factor tree or short division, then place out all the tiles for each number.  At this point, they can rearrange each row into least-to-greatest order.  Then line up the primes, bumping the whole row when there is no overlap in primes between the composite numbers.

We also were able to look at more interesting problems now that students could “see” the inner workings of the factorizations better.  For example, find a pair of numbers with a GCF of 42 and an LCM of 4620 (you may not use the “trivial” answer of 42 and 4620).  By constructing a “board” of prime number tiles, starting with the factorization of the GCF and the LCM, students begin to see which primes have to be in the two numbers and which can only be in one of the two numbers.  Note that there will be more than one answer here … which is another interesting discussion to have!

I’ve never seen “prime number tiles” in any math manipulative kit … they were just something I created last semester.  I think this method of using Prime number tiles would also be helpful with explaining how to find the GCF in the factoring unit of algebra, and with explaining how to find the LCD in fractions.

Feel free to print the prime number tiles and use them in your own classes if you’d like.

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Algebra Balance Scales

Sep 8, 2009 by

There are lots of “games” out there about solving equations, but I haven’t found a single one that is more than algebra homework dressed up with pretty packaging.  The “games” are all of the same format.  We’ll give you problems, you give us answers and we’ll reward you (or your character) if you get them right.  These are not teaching games, these are just more of the same kind of practice that you would find in an algebra text.

There is one applet that is worthy of mention, though.  The Algebra Balance Scales from the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives is quite good.  It isn’t billed as a game, but when you’re using it, you feel like you are playing a game because you’re interacting with the algebra on the screen.


I recorded an example to show my students how it works.

An interesting assignment for an online or hybrid class would be to have THEM record an example explaining the process (you could, for example, use Jing like I did) and turn in the link.

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