Growing up, the saying “work hard, then play hard” might be familiar to some, but research in neuroscience has shown that both can actually be done simultaneously. An NIE neuroscience research study found that one effective way to engage pupils while learning Mathematics was through playing games. A teacher from Bukit View Primary School shares how participating in the study has provided an increased support for pupils struggling in Mathematics.
At Bukit View Primary School (BVPS), Mrs Evelyn Tan and her fellow teachers-in-charge of the Learning Support for Mathematics (LSM) programme observed that some pupils continued to struggle with the subject, despite the team’s best efforts to provide them with additional support in the form of intervention programmes and smaller pull-out classes through the years.
When an NIE research team invited them to participate in a study that aims to address the challenge of levelling up learners struggling in Mathematics through neural-informed games in 2020, Evelyn and her fellow teachers agreed. “We wanted to develop a deeper understanding of pupils’ learning processes and to explore the use of neural-informed Mathematics games as a teaching tool in the LSM classroom,” she shares.
With the same goal in mind, both the NIE and BVPS teams worked towards developing a joy of learning in this group of pupils by instilling motivation and confidence in learning the subject.
Understanding the Impact of Games through Neuroscience
The research study consists of two segments which are carried out by the NIE researchers: assessment and activity.
The assessment segment involves personalizing the profiles of each pupil participant. These profiles are built through a set of comprehensive tests which included the attention span and anxiety level tests. To ensure more accurate profiles, the researchers also utilized a brain-based data collection tool, Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), which provides insights into the activity level of the pupil participants’ brains when they work on problem sums.
In the activity segment, pupils played a series of neural-informed Mathematics games on tablets. At some of the game sessions, the researchers monitored how the various parts of the pupils’ brains were activated in the decision-making process and the pupils’ anxiety level using fNIRS.
Through the game sessions, Evelyn and her team of teachers observed an improvement in pupils’ learning attitudes and motivation levels. “They were captivated by the interactive games and they liked that they had autonomy over the pace of learning,” she shares. “They enjoyed the activities and looked forward to the sessions.”
Moving forward, how can teachers then implement such game-based interventions in their own classroom practices?
Learning through Play
“Learning can be introduced through play, which is central to how children learn and it takes away any stress or anxiety that they associate with when learning Mathematics.”
– Evelyn on the positive impact of incorporating play into learning
“Learning can be introduced through play, which is central to how children learn and it takes away any stress or anxiety that they associate with when learning Mathematics,” Evelyn explains. As such, infusing games into Mathematics lessons can better engage pupils and develop their interest and confidence in the subject.
Instead of only using worksheets to help pupils practice what they have learnt, teachers can explore structuring practices using mathematic games. For example, to help pupils commit to memory multiplication facts, they can practise in pairs using number cards or even UNO cards.
Another way is to engage the class in a game of Kahoot on multiplication. There are also mobile applications that teachers can download for pupils to play with to reinforce their learning. Many of these online platforms allow teachers to track the progress of individual pupils as they practice through games.
According to Evelyn, participation in the study was an eye-opening experience. “Not only did it allow us to have a more nuanced understanding of the process of learning and the factors that enable or hinder it, but we also have greater awareness of the development of teaching and learning strategies that are informed by brain-based findings, allowing us to improve on practices to help struggling learners.”
Importance of School Support
The research experience was not without challenges and difficulties. Due to the pandemic caused by COVID-19, the project was delayed for two months when the government declared the closure of all schools in Singapore in 2020.
Eventually when schools reopened and the study resumed with necessary measures implemented, BVPS’s school leaders and other departments poured their support in various ways. This includes and is not limited to allocating periods within curriculum time for the LSM team to focus on the project.
“We are thankful that support from the entire school team made the process smoother so we could complete the study within time constraints,” Evelyn shares. The strong support structure also motivates the team to further their participation in the research study and continue to implement neural-informed game-based interventions so that more pupils can benefit from them.
Benefits of Teacher-Researcher Collaboration
“Teachers are practitioners and through years of practice we might know good methods of teaching,” Evelyn shares, “but with evidence-based knowledge and methods derived from researches, we will be able to gain insights into the ‘why’ of a method: Why some practices worked better than the other or why some practices worked on some pupils or for some topics but not for others.”
The year-long collaboration between the NIE research team and Evelyn’s team of teachers was a fruitful one; the collaboration afforded teachers the opportunity to exercise greater awareness of the development of teaching and learning strategies that are informed by brain-based findings.
Evelyn and her team also emerged more confident as teachers especially in helping pupils from the LSM programme. “We are now more confident in teaching our weaker learners through the joy of learning and we believe they will be able to learn well with all the support that has been given to them,” she concludes.