Making Mangahigh Less of a Game

Making Mangahigh Less of a Game

Want to play a game?

Try a question. You just got it wrong.  Try another? Got it wrong again.  Try another. Wrong again.  Try 7 more? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  Do you want to play again? I thought not.

The difference between games we like and games we don’t is often, we’re pretty good at the games we like. Our students, masters of playing games, don’t waste time on games they keep losing.  They close the game and find another one, or move on to another task.  This habit has no consequences when kids play games at home – but it does when they play games in the math classroom.

Two key ideas that have emerged in the blended learning world is that if you make learning like a game, students will be engaged, and if you provide them instant feedback, they will recognize and overcome misunderstandings more efficiently.  My experience in our 9th grade classes is that while this premise is true in theory, in practice the bulk of the work continues to be helping students develop the habits and resourcefulness to solve problems.

Our 9th graders complete a significant portion of their practice assignments on a gaming/practice website called Mangahigh.  Here’s  a screenshot of the game, and a basic description of how the program works.

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– Students receive an assignment, say for example “Angles inside a Quadrilateral”
– You ultimately need a certain number of points from correct answers to score a Gold, Silver, or Bronze (we require a silver in our gradebook)
– Students get sets of 10 questions at a time, all multiple choice
– Questions start at Easy – when they score three in a row correct, they move up to Medium, Hard, and Extreme.  If students get two in a row wrong, they move down a level
– At the end of the round of ten, students see a screen showing which questions they got wrong – which they can click on and see a full solution.

As expected, students that have performed well on Mangahigh have performed well on our rigorous in-class assessments.   However, about 8 months into using the program,  we’ve found that about half of the students in our 9th grade like or love the program, and half of our students dislike or hate the program.  The question “Why?” has been one that we’ve been struggling with for most of the year, and we’ve formed a few hypotheses, which in turn have informed our actions in the classroom.

The first is that Mangahigh scores are a reflection of student habits, specifically tied to students’ experience in mathematics and what has led them to this point.  Check out this graph below..

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What we saw in graphs like this is that the unsuccessful students generally quit after the first round.  We see this in the classroom all of the time.  The ones that are struggling are trying an objective once, thinking to themselves “This is too much” or “I’m never going to get this”, and stop playing.  Successful students are doing better in the early rounds, making it easier to deal with a few wrong questions in rounds two or three.  Students that are not having success are finishing a round, and then either quitting, or clicking “Play Again” without figuring out why they got the problems wrong in the first place.  They don’t do any better the next time around; they just get more frustrated!

Part of instant feedback can sometimes mean that if a student isn’t strong in math, or on a particular objective, they find that out sooner. Dealing with that type of disappointment is difficult for anyone, especially hormonal teenagers.  This isn’t only for low performing students – it happens with high performing studentswhen working with objectives they don’t know as well – they too put up barriers.As a result, when we are working on Mangahigh in class, a majority of the comments that we as teachers make are as follows:

“Do you have a paper and pencil out?”
“Do you have your notes out?”
“Did you click the review answers to see why you got those questions wrong?”
“Click the review answers and see how they completed the solution.”
“Take your time, don’t just choose anything.”
“Play again, keep going, you can do this.”

We find ourselves continually harping not on specific math-related questions, but encouraging students to practice habits that will increase their resourcefulness in solving problems.   Despite the change in medium for practice (from pencil and paper to computer), the conversation continues to be around increasing our students’ resourcefulness to solve problems on their own. The main difference in paper vs. pencil practice is that computers allow students to receive and process feedback more efficiently.  This is a great thing for student learning if students view the feedback as a stepping stone towards more learning.  However, it’s a potentially damaging thing if students view the feedback as another stone in the wall between them and learning.

After reflecting on why we were having so many “habits and practices” conversations with students so often, we came to see that one of the challenges is that students see Mangahigh as a game.  With video games, there is no instructional manual; students advance through trial and error.  But in Mangahigh, despite it looking like a game, the same methodology does not work.  So, students come to say – “I don’t like this game”, and stop playing – just as they would if this were a game in their free time.

One particularly enlightening interaction with a strong student went like this, after I had seen him sitting, not playing the game for fear of not doing well.

Me: What’s your strategy now?

Student: I don’t know, I’m not going to get them right.

Me: Why don’t you try to just get them all wrong, then see what the correct strategies for getting the answers were, and then play again?

Student: But that’s cheating, I’m not going to do that.

Me: That’s not cheating, that’s learning – just taking notes. The questions won’t be the same, but the strategies will.

Student: No, that’s cheating

As a result, we’ve continued to change the conversation in our class from Mangahigh being a game to Mangahigh being an opportunity to get lots of feedback.  We’ve spoken a lot about defining “mathematical perseverance”,both in terms of strategies students can use, and also how much time it takes.  We’ve shown  students data to support that doing better on Mangahigh increases their grades and test scores, and finally addressing all conversations around Mangahigh through the lens of improving one’s student skills.  However, like many math teachers can attest, often the biggest battle is encouraging and coaching students to keep working, keep looking at mistakes, and continue playing/working.

Ultimately, Mangahigh has been an effective means of practice in our class.  More feedback has meant more opportunities for students to work on misunderstandings, as well on the process of learning how to learn.  The challenge has been convincing students to see this feedback as an opportunity for learning, and not just another game of luck or chance.

Written by Will Stafford

High school Math teacher at EL Haynes Public Charter School

8 comments

  1. After a year of using Mangahigh, i have to say Some of what you say rings true, but I wouldnt put it all on Mangahigh. After all it’s the teacher’s job to deliver the standards and mangahigh to deliver the practices assuming the teacher did their part. In other words, dont assign student any challenges they are not prepared for. Also, it’s a good idea to try a challenge whole class before laying them out for the kids.

  2. The description of this pilot implementation if Manga High bares a lot of resemblance to the pilot that we are running at Envision Schools using Khan Academy. Both interfaces are developed with certain game qualities embedded for the specific motivational reasons that you mentioned. It is amazing how articulately you described the walls and barriers to both learning and progress that you have experienced. Students do get super frustrated, students do not know how to use the program to learn or problem solve, and students who are strong get more practice and get stronger.
    I do think it is interesting to note that somehow, through all of this frustration, students scores improve. How is this? My current working hypothesis is that through all of the muck the students actually increase the number of problems that they attempt. This in turn increases the number of times that they get to practice the algorithms even is they don’t always get the right answer. My claim, and I think it is highly unoriginal, is that practice makes perfect.
    Thanks for the thoughtful read

  3. Mary Pedley

    Try rewarding students for getting the feedback, putting the emphasis not on the answer but the process. Using the analogy of math as a foreign language, the important thing is not WHAT the language means but HOW the language means. If the reward is on the HOW and not the WHAT, the game changes. The problem with the Mangahigh game is that the score is based on the right answer, not on the process, and you’re wanting students to improve their processing to get the right answer. So change the stakes for awhile to reward the ratio of improvement from low scores to high scores.

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful suggestion. I think that there is definitely a need for alternative and additional forms of reinforcement. This will most likely come in the form of classroom systems that the teacher creates and implements, as many of the free programs so not have the ability to analyze a students process for solving problems, and instead focuses on the end result. There is one Java based program that can be found @ http://www.fi.uu.nl/wisweb/en/. This is the Freudenthal Institute website out of the Netherlands. They have some applets in the Digital Math Environment that can assess a students process and will not let them progress until they have the correct step completed. However, this system lacks any sort of hints system. In my experience sticker charts go a long way. There are many pedagogical strategies that we abandon in middle sand high school that work really well, sticker charts is one of them. The other, that I think contribute much to this space is stations. Thoughts?

  5. Will Stafford (EL Haynes)

    I think this is really interesting point and gets to the heart of the question of what constitute effective feedback. The current set up of the program doesn’t force students to view a correct solution right away – rather it relies on the student still being engaged and interested in how to do the question correctly at the end of the round, and with the hope they will click back to see that incorrect question. The fact is students aren’t making that choice – so should they even have one? Would it be a more powerful source of feedback for students to instantly see a solution to an incorrect answer – and in that have an opportunity to see which parts of the process they indeed had correct. We’ve sent some feedback to Mangahigh to ask if this is a feature that could possibly be added to the program.

    As for systems within our classroom – we have brainstormed a few ways to try and reward the process more effectively, but we’re still working on finding a system that sticks and works with students. I’d be interested to know what systems others had had success with.

  6. Will Stafford (EL Haynes)

    I completely agree – Mangahigh’s best use is as a supplemental practice to work done in class. I also think that brainstorming difficult questions as a class is an effective means to help students overcome some hurdles on their path to passing an objective. However, I think it’s a fine line between making sure the concept is covered in class and making sure every procedural application of the concept is practiced in class. That is to say, Mangahigh does a nice job of varying it’s questions at the difficult level and forcing students to use a concept a slightly different way. I think its important that students develop strategies, if they don’t get these questions right, to know a pathway to figure them out on their own once they get them wrong. I don’t necessarily think it’s serving them in their best interest in terms of developing problem solving skills to guarantee “exposure” and drill every type of question they may encounter in practice. I do agree with as you said that after all students have had the chance to practice those, seeing the worked solutions as a class is a powerful tool for them.

  7. Some of the most successful games we play online are those we fail at over and over again – think Angry Birds where you can fail at a level 10-15 times and still keep playing. I remember growing up on PacMan and I would keep playing until I could pass a level I failed on too many times to count. In fact, it makes you want to play more and more. I think the difference is that students cannot picture themselves ever being successful on Mangahigh because it is math related. That’s one of the the things teacher need to work real hard to change – student vision of themselves as mathematicians.

  8. When I first started using Manga High, I too, found that students weren’t going back to retry challenges until they gained a medal. This validation is great, so thank you for the post and comments. I like assigning students different tutorials and games that target their different learning levels at a time when going to the lab. For example, I will assign a game at their independent level that they just enjoy, and I will also assign a Prodigi that is at their frustration level or that they are on the verge of mastering. This way students have the ability to go back and forth whenever they feel like they need a break and are more likely to stick with it. Once they’ve earned a medal, its their pass to choose any game they want and play. Its great to see what math my students pick on their own and enjoy, kind of like seeing what genre they enjoy in literature. I’ve also had my students write reflections on their favorite games or their least favorite. I think next year I’ll have a journal like this where I can also make comments and we can have a dialogue about their challenges. I also think its a great way to see if your students are able to articulate the learning objectives of a game.

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