How Gamification Improved Student Test Scores While Reducing Math Anxiety

September 7, 2023

Math fact fluency has gotten a bad rap over the years, and that reputation comes in no small part from the types of practice traditionally used to reinforce it.

In the last decade, research has helped educators rethink the definition of math fact fluency from one focused exclusively on speed and accuracy to a more holistic view that incorporates flexibility and strategy. Still, however, study after study has shown that math fact automaticity is critical for students’ long-term success in mathematics and is a predictor of performance on general mathematics tests.

But studies also show that many of the timed drills used to teach automaticity and math fact fluency contribute to math anxiety. In fact, Dr. Jo Boaler found that for about one third of students, the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety.

It leaves educators at a tricky crossroads. For many, the solution became dropping the time-bound element from fact fluency practice. But without the element of time, there is no guarantee students are truly mastering fact fluency. After all, tools like arrays can be helpful for learning multiplication, but on time-bound assessments, students typically don’t have time to use these methods on each and every problem they encounter.  

De-coupling math fluency and math anxiety with gamification

To help address this important conundrum, a new edu-gaming solution entered the scene in 2017. From its very beginning, BlueStreak Math aimed to focus exclusively and thoroughly on math fact fluency, incorporating strategy, but refusing to shy away from the timed practice critical to automaticity. But BlueStreak took a very different approach than the rote memorization practice of decades past; it bet on student engagement and gamification to capture the full benefit of automaticity while leaving math anxiety behind.

One principal notes how her school decided to start using BlueStreak.

“We started using BlueStreak because we didn’t have an intervention solution that addressed our students’ fluency gaps,” Principal Kehr said. “But a lot of fluency practice has to do with repetition, so BlueStreak gave this idea of game and fun for students for something that used to be approached through drill and kill. Now, I don’t think students even think they’re going to intervention. They think it’s this fun privilege.”

BlueStreak’s learning games – which cover addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals – allow students to practice math facts in individual, competitive, and cooperative game modes rather than relying on flashcards or repetitive worksheets. So while the problems are still timed, students feel less of the pressure of being “on the clock” and more motivated to play and learn.

Mirroring the games students play outside of school

Earlier this year, BlueStreak released a new learning game called Star Skater, echoing elements from always-popular games like Super Mario to up student engagement. Like all BlueStreak games, Star Skater is space-centric and features modern, striking visuals that don’t feel overly “kiddish.” In it, students skate on hoverboards on another planet, avoiding aliens walking their dogs and solving equations to power up their boards, all in an effort to get to school on time. The game is designed to mirror the games students play outside of school to maximize engagement, but it also features more equations per round to increase student rate of learning as they play.

“We really designed BlueStreak to reflect the types of games students play at home, so they get all the benefit of math fluency practice while feeling like they’re just playing with their friends,” “We constantly go into schools and hear kids talking about how they’re going to beat their friend’s high score and make the leaderboard,” BlueStreak Education, Chief Technology Officer Mitch Meyer said. “Teachers are shocked, because they’ve never seen that level of engagement with math before, especially post-pandemic school closures where they have really seen students’ confidence in math suffering.”

Teachers have even recounted instances of students choosing to play BlueStreak during free time, where non-educational games are offered. Combined with the platform’s focus on low teacher lift and high student autonomy, this buy-in from students makes using BlueStreak “with fidelity” – which the company defines as 15 minutes of practice in the platform per day – easy.

Leaderboards and contests also amp up gamification to keep students coming back for more.

The platform’s adaptive engine even ensures students are challenged to just the right level, pushing them to maximize progress while ensuring equations are not so hard that they feel discouraged.

The results: Gamification in math works

As more districts adopted BlueStreak as their fluency solution, high-stakes assessment scores began to roll in. And the results were clear: gamification of math fact fluency works.

One year-over-year study of grades 3-8 shows students who used BlueStreak Math experienced double the average growth on benchmark assessment score compared to students who did not:

Effect of BlueStreak on Student RIT Score Growth, Grades 3-8. Scores increased from 3.9  to 7.8.

Additional studies backup this drastic progress, with another BlueStreak Title 1 school seeing nearly double the assessment score growth: an average of +8.2 with use of BlueStreak compared to +4.5 without.

Best of all, our research showed that this growth applied to both lower and higher percentile students:

“It’s really special to talk to teachers, principals and superintendents and hear that they’re not only seeing an increase in student high stakes test scores, but they’re seeing students have this confidence in math that they didn’t before, especially coming out of COVID,” BlueStreak Education, CEO and Founder Catherine Duncan said. “The data indicates that fluency is critical and practicing independently while gaming with other students across the US provides a powerful incentive and motivation to continue learning in an environment where all students can be successful.”

BlueStreak Math