Posts filed under ‘Potpourri’

Guest Blog – Video Games for Education

This is a guest blog written by my 16-year-old son. He’s a sophomore, and currently plans on majoring in Game Design. He’ll be back from time to time to offer the perspective of a high school student on education. Please leave feedback by commenting on the post – we’d both love to hear what you have to say.

I know, it’s pretty unusual to see the words video games and education on the same line. Many people see video games as murder simulators that cause shootings, lead to unsocial behaviors, and the main cause for the loss of interest and effort in school and work, turning the young-male gamers into a bunch of zombies. This is pretty much as far from the truth as possible.

In truth, games are all about learning, and the once teenage-boy dominated area is now almost split between female and male gamers, with everyone from toddlers to senior citizens playing games.

The main purpose of playing a video game is to have fun. But what is fun? The definition of fun, given by Raph Foster, is, “positive feedback given by the brain for cognitive learning, the process of building schemata for coping with the world.” So, having fun is basically learning stuff that is applicable world. So, we can use the substitution property to change a previous statement: “The main purpose of playing a video game is to learn stuff that is applicable in the real world.” Does this sound like something else you might be familiar with?

“The main purpose of SCHOOL is to learn stuff that is applicable in the real world.” So, we’ve basically stated that video games and school have the same primary goal. At this point, you might be thinking, “How is anything you can learn in a video game applicable in real life?”

I’m going to use the most played video game today to answer your question. FarmVille. The game is actually packed full of useful skills and lessons. For those of you who don’t know, FarmVille is a social game on Facebook, in which you must run a farm: planting, tending crops, harvesting trees, caring for animals, designing your farm, etc. For starters, the game teaches money management skills: for example, I realized that if you spend all of your money plowing your land, you won’t have any left for planting crops, which means you can’t earn money, which means you’ve pretty much failed as a farmer. One also learns teamwork, as you have to work together, sending gifts and fertilizing each other’s land for bonus coins. Time management is also a big lesson which you learn once you realize planting a six hour crop at eight in the afternoon will require you to harvest it at two in the morning. The list of lessons goes on, and while you learn them, you also see farms from a whole new perspective and where your food comes from. And all games are like this, be it a sci-fi shooter like Halo or a fantasy MMO like World of Warcraft (if you think you have a game that you think doesn’t teach or work out your brain, please comment so I can prove you wrong).

Video games are set up very similarly to a class. Both games and classes continuously introduce new information, give scores based on mastery, get more difficult with time, test knowledge of an area with a test (a boss battle), test mastery on the entire class/game with a final (a final boss battle), give clearly defined goals which the student/player must reach (whether it’s save the princess or solve for x), etc.

Video games also fill in the gaps where school seems to fall short. For many classes, the learning is basically the teacher telling/giving you facts, and you memorizing the facts. That is not learning. Learning is gaining information/skills interactively through trying and failing, not being told what to do people who have already learned it (or were also told). Real learning allows for actual retention and understanding. That’s how children learn, that’s how early man learned, and that’s how one is supposed to learn. Video games allow for failure and allow you to play around with things. If you are shot, you are given another chance: you learn from your mistake, fix it the next time, and make a lot more progress. If games were like some classes, you’d memorize the exact route, enemy locations, and puzzle solutions before playing, and the playing would mainly be executing (you don’t learn anything!). The main point is, it’s hard to memorize a list of polyatomic ions in chemistry, but it’s easy to remember the huge library of lessons which a gamer pulls from throughout the game.

Another major problem of the traditional class is progression. Most teachers start the semester/year with a schedule of tests, homework assignments, what they are going to teach, and when they’re going to teach it. If a student fails a test and does not understand the unit or section, he/she does not get a chance to learn from his/her failure (the real kind of learning), and the class moves on, new topics that require previous knowledge quickly pile on the student who still hasn’t learned the foundation for these new topics. On the other hand, a student who has mastered a topic soon becomes bored and unmotivated, and new unknown material may be far off. With video games, the computer can slow down to give the student a chance to learn, or speed up if the player has mastered the certain topic. Basically, the computer can teach the individual student with a personalized class: reviews of older trouble-spots, a perfect learning curve fitted for the individual, constant feedback of how the student is doing (rather than after assignments or entire chapters have been completed), and the use of the techniques which students have learned from the best.

Another major advantage of learning through video games is the fact that video games are games! I don’t know anyone who would rather read a textbook than play a game. The many students that find class daunting, boring, or difficult can find themselves immersed in the world of the video game. Imagine all of the people who could learn subjects they could have never imagined understanding through video games. We need to see past the term “video games” and see them for what they really are: “digital interactive learning environments” (or DILEs). We just need to change what it is the player learns in these digital interactive learning environments.

The advantages that video games have as teaching tools go far beyond the limits of a blog post. They allow for actual learning by allowing failure and avoiding common teaching pitfalls, like lecturing and memorizing assignments, which tend to drive many students away or make them think that the things they are learning are not important (as they can just look it up anyhow). All video games teach (they teach so well, we don’t even realize we are learning since our definition of learning has changed over the years); once we let them (DILEs) into the education system (or even outside), millions of students will excel at subjects like math, science, English, history, etc. They could be used during summer, as supplementary material, or as entire classes if my ideas turn out to be correct (and we will never know until we try).

Teachers should look at video games and try to change things in class to model the learning structure of video games until we have reached a day where education leaders have accepted gaming as learning: more hands-on experiences, less lecturing, no memorizing (anything you have to memorize is basically useless, especially since you don’t even learn it in the first place), more individual “check-ups”, looser schedules, and maybe even games kids can play in the classroom in which they learn and discuss what they learned (don’t tell them!) And if you think it is impossible to teach real classes in a game, it is not. Attempts have already started to occur (Example: Florida Virtual School teaches a US history class in a video game in which you must prove a conspiracy). The facts are in front of us: video games teach what they teach better than anyone/anything else ever could. It is difficult to learn in the modern classroom that doesn’t allow failure, interactivity, engagement, or feedback (until you see that giant F on your paper). The kids who don’t do well in these classes aren’t stupid – they just can’t learn by the techniques used for hundreds of years.

This is the first in a series of guest blogs my son will write to share a high school student’s perspective on education. They will appear every so often on Thursdays. Please leave your feedback as a comment, or drop me a line through the contact page on my website. If you have any questions, or if you have ideas for topics, just let us know.



March 25, 2010 at 6:52 am 8 comments

Moving Towards Web 2.0 – Algebra Exam Review

Wednesday I started a review session with my elementary algebra class on graphing linear equations.Developmental math students, as a group, are unsure how to review for an exam. To me, what students need to focus on is looking at problems and developing a strategy for solving them rather than just working through hundreds of problems.

I used a strategy that I love to use in developmental classes. I numbered my students from 1 to 9 and had all of the “1’s” get together, all of the “2’s”, and so on. I have around 40 students, so the group sizes were 4-5 students each. I gave two problems to each group with the following directions.

  • Solve each problem, making sure each person understands.
  • Write 3 to 5 statements about each problem that are crucial for solving the problem.

Each group worked for approximately 15 minutes. I then started asking groups for their solutions, as well as their statements they were asked to write. I had to do a lot of prompting for their statements, and I wasn’t really surprised by this. Developmental math students do not enjoy being vocal in class, and for the most part I think it’s due to their lack of confidence and high anxiety.

We were able to get through 1 problem for each group. I then asked each group to email me their solutions, as well as their 3 to 5 statements, and I would post them on our MyMathLab course site. They seemed to be much more at ease communicating their ideas electronically. I assembled their emails and notified the class when they were all posted. The final assignment was to look over each others work before class on Thursday.

On Thursday I started putting problems on the board and asked students how they would solve them. It was amazing! So many students participate, volunteering their strategy. I feel it was one of the most successful review sessions I had ever hosted.

How Does Web 2.0 Tie In?

I started to think about how I could use Web 2.0 tools to serve the same purpose as copying and pasting emails into a single document. Here’s a few I thought of.

Facebook Group

If my students were in a Facebook group, they could all post their solutions and statements on the Facebook page. Students could also scan their solution and post them to the page. Perhaps they could even make a quick video that they could post.


If my students were all Twitter users, they could all post their solutions and statements using a common hash tag. They could use a program such as Jing to share their solutions. A video link could be shared in the same way.


It struck me that this assignment might work best by creating a wiki. I have no experience putting one together, but it seems like a natural.

What Do You Think?

Do you prefer one strategy over the others? I think I am still leaning towards Facebook simply because most of my students already have accounts. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have other ideas that could be used?

If you’d like to share your thoughts in more depth, please leave your comment or you can reach me through the contact page on my website .


I am a mathematics instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. I have decided to add technology related articles to my Thursday blog lineup. Let me know if there are other topics you’d like me to cover. You can reach me through the contact page on my website.

March 4, 2010 at 6:09 pm Leave a comment

Which Tool Can Be Better Utilized To Help Students Prepare For An Exam – Facebook Or Twitter?

Last week I blogged about creating a Facebook group for my statistics students. The choice of Facebook over Twitter was mostly based on the fact that almost every single student had a Facebook account. I also thought that it would be easier to use in a productive way to help students learn and understand.

Using Facebook To Prepare For An Exam

We have our second exam (probability) coming up next Tuesday, so I posted practice questions on the Facebook group page.

  • Over the weekend the students will start typing their answers as replies, as well as explaining their reasoning.
  • Students will also post questions, and their classmates will help to answer them.
  • As I create Camtasia videos I will post them to the Facebook group page.
  • I will send out advice and tips periodically through wall postings as well as through Facebook messages.

Could I Use Twitter To Do The Same Things?

I feel that students can use my Facebook group page to prepare for their exam. Can Twitter be used as effectively? I’m not sure, let’s take a look issue by issue.

  • Can I “post” practice problems using Twitter?
    Not that I am aware of. I suppose that I could 140 characters (minus hash tags) at a time, but most of my questions are too long.
  • Can students share their answers, as well as reasoning?
    Absolutely. They may have to use more than one Tweet, but it can be done. There is the drawback that they will all need a Twitter account, which very few of my community college students do.
  • Can students post questions and ask their classmates for help?
    Absolutely, as long as we use a common hash tag. Again, we would need to have all of the students open Twitter accounts.
  • Can I post Camtasia videos?
    Sure, I can post the video on Youtube and Tweet the address to my students.
  • Can I send out advice and tips to my students?
    This is one of Twitter’s strengths. My students don’t have to have an account, but instead just visit my Twitter page.

 So, Help Me Out

I’m asking for your help. I could use some pointers on how I can incorporate Twitter into my math classes in an effective manner. I love Twitter – I have learned so much in such a short time.. I love #edtech & #edchat. I’d really like to incorporate it into my classes.

Please leave your suggestions as comments, or send them to me via the contact page on my website. I’d also like to take your pulse concerning which tool can effectively be incorporated into a math class, so please vote in this poll.


I am a mathematics instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. I have decided to add technology related articles to my Thursday blog lineup. Let me know if there are other topics you’d like me to cover. You can reach me through the contact page on my website.

February 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm 3 comments

Facebook Groups For Math Classes?

Facebook or Twitter?

On the first day of class this semester, I asked my statistics students if they used Facebook or Twitter. I wanted to incorporate one of these sites into my course, and was trying to decide which one to use. I found that nearly all of my students had a Facebook account, but very few had a Twitter account. So, I decided to set up a group page for my statistics students.

Before setting up the group page, I wanted to make sure that they would not have access to my personal Facebook page. I told them that they would probably lower their respect for me if they saw my Facebook page. They assured me that I would respect them even less! Seriously, although I make a goal of breaking down the walls between students and their instructor, I don’t think it would be a good idea to cross this line. I’m on their side, and I’ll support their endeavors in any way that I can, but I feel there is a big difference between instructor and friend.

The Launch

I waited until the week before the first exam and opened the group page. I have a little over one-quarter of my students in the group. I posted the practice test questions on the group wall, and students came in and posted their answers. I let them know which were correct and which were incorrect. It was a nice way to get the group started.

Positive Outcomes

I had a student in my 10am class who posted that he was having trouble calculating standard deviation using the formula, as uploaded a scanned copy of his work. A student in my 8am class pointed out his error. This is where I feel the power of Facebook as an educational tool is at its greatest. I essentially have an easy to maintain message board where my students can help one another. (Would it surprise you that both students scored 100% on their exam?)

One student discovered that the text file I provided them was not pasting into StatCrunch as intended, and stated how her classmates could fix the situation. She helped her classmates avoid wasting their time working with flawed data. Since it was the first day of a 4-day weekend, this was an issue I could not address in class for quite some time.


Facebook provides me with an easy option for posting materials, classroom summaries, videos, and graphics that my students can use. It gives me an easy way to get messages to my students – from anywhere. All I need is Internet access from any computer.

As the semester continues on, I will share other ways I am using Facebook. I’ll also update on my students’ feelings towards it. If you have any pointers that you would like to share, or any questions you would like to ask, just leave me a comment or reach me through the contact page on my website. I would really like to hear from you if you are using Facebook (or Twitter) in your classes.


I am a mathematics instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. I have decided to add technology related articles to my Thursday blog lineup. Let me know if there are other topics you’d like me to cover.

February 18, 2010 at 6:30 am Leave a comment

Changes I’m Making In My Statistics Classes – StatCrunch

I’ve been teaching Introductory Statistics at College of the Sequoias for 17 years, and for the first time in a long while I’m making some significant changes in the way I’m teaching. One of the major changes is in the form of technology – I am using StatCrunch for the first time and I am loving it.

We used to use Minitab, but it became too costly for our college and none of our students had access at home. We then switched to Excel (with all of its issues) because it was already on all of our campus computers, and some students had access from home. I really like the TI-83/84, but since this was a terminal class it was hard to require students to spend $100 or so on a calculator they wouldn’t use again. There is also the problem of transferring data to the calculator.

StatCrunch has solved all of these problems for me – it’s basically a technological equalizer. My students all have access through MyMathLab, they can access it on campus or at home, there was no cost above what was already required in terms of the text and MyMathLab access, and it is quite easy to share data with students. (Currently students do not have full access for posting surveys, data, and results, but my understanding is that they will have full access starting in Fall 2010.)

My class time is now set up in 4 parts: lecture on new topics (including working by hand), conceptual interpretation, StatCrunch demo, and group assignment or assessment. The amount of time devoted to each part varies depending on the material, but the plan is to spend more time on conceptual understanding and group activities.

Today my class is taking their first exam on descriptive statistics, and it looks a lot different than my old exams. Gone is the problem with 40 data values, asking for 10 different measures and 0 understanding. Looking back, it was basically a “Do you know how to use your calculator?” question. In its place is a take home supplement that is worth 20% of their test grade. I gave my students 2 sets of test scores and asked for a full analysis using StatCrunch, using all of the tools we have learned to date. They then are asked to use their results to address the question “Are the two exams of equal difficulty?” They are being asked to use technology and interpret their results in an intelligent manner, which I think should be the main goal of an intro stat course. If you’d like a copy of the assignment, send me a request through the Contact page on my web site.

Also gone is the problem asking them to draw a pie chart. When would someone ever do that by hand? Isn’t it more important that a student can read and interpret a pie chart?

In one problem I particularly like I provided a stem and leaf display and asked my students to create a 5-number summary for the data. Interpreting a stem and leaf display already generated by technology is a practical skill.

When I first started at my college I taught the computer science courses. Computer Science 1 was taught using FORTRAN. That’s right, I said FORTRAN. My exams were pencil and paper exams, and students could not use any resources. When our college built a new math building, there was a computer lab that I could teach the course in. I asked students to actually write programs during their exam, and I allowed them to use their resources, because I thought that was how things were likely to work in the real world. I started using group projects because I thought it would prepare them for the type of programming they would be doing in the real world. Now I find myself thinking, “Isn’t it time to bring the same approach to my statistics classes?” My only regret is that it took me so long to get here.


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Do you have any questions about statistics or StatCrunch? Leave a comment, or drop me a line through Contact page on my web site.

February 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm 1 comment

Things I’ve Learned – Tell Them Why

I hear instructors talking about how their students lack motivation and display little to no effort. They can’t figure out why, so there’s usually a shrug of the shoulders followed by a sigh. In the last few years I’ve made a concentrated effort to tell my students “why” – why they should take notes in class, why they should try to solve the problem instead of waiting for the instructor to do it, why they should do homework, etc.

Students will do the work if they know why they are doing it. This is especially crucial for developmental students. Based on their high school experience homework is just a task – it’s our job to let them know that the purpose of doing homework is to increase their understanding and that it’s not just some task that will be checked off. They need to know that we take notes in class not just to keep busy, but instead to keep a transcript that they can use outside of class. So I tell them why.

A perfect example is my new MyMathLab homework/quizzing policy. Can you imagine developmental math students doing homework that is worth 0% of their grade? My students do. (In my class homework is worth 0%, and serves as a prerequisite for the quizzes in MyMathLab.) On the first day of class I explained to them that the homework is there for them to gain understanding while using any resources available to them, and that the homework is intended to prepare them for the quizzes. That made so much sense that they were willing to accept this, and they have been doing their homework faithfully.

“Tell Them Why” does not just apply to getting students to work, but also to helping students understand mathematics. Telling them why we use a certain procedure, rather than just saying “Here are the steps”, will help your students to gain conceptual understanding and be more likely to buy in.

Tell them why.

I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. If there are topics you’d like me to address in future articles, or if there’s something you would like to share, send in your requests through the contact page on my web site. Be sure to check out next Wednesday’s article.  – George

February 4, 2010 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

Potpourri – Student Success Story (Thursday 11/19/09)

About 10 years ago, I switched to teaching mostly developmental mathematics classes. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the material in Calculus (my family tree does contain Newton, after all), I found that teaching developmental mathematics can be more personally fulfilling. Here’s a story to illustrate this.

On the first day of each class, I collect a survey from my students. It contains the standard information (name, email address, math background, …). I also give the students a space to share any information that they feel I should know. One student, who I will call Laura, wrote down that math was her worst subject and would like to talk to me about it during office hours.

When Laura came to my office I asked her when her problems with math began. (It’s funny, but in my experience students can answer this question in about 0.3 seconds. We always seem to know the cause of our troubles, even if we don’t know how to fix them.) Laura told me that she remembered a time in the third grade – that’s right, the third grade –  when her teacher held up her math paper and told the class “Take a good look at this paper. This is a bad paper. Don’t do it this way.” Naturally, Laura was crushed. It was so bad that she still hadn’t recovered over 10 years later.

I asked her how she did in the rest of her classes, and she told me that she was a great student except in math. I told her that I had a deal for her. If she would put aside her negative math feelings and give her fullest effort, I would work as hard as I could to help her. I felt that if she could experience one success, she could lose all of that old baggage and move on. I promised her that if she passed the first test, I would hold her test up in front of the class and tell them “This is a good test! This is how you do it! Well done!”

So, we worked really hard, and Laura passed the first test. I held up my end of the bargain, held up her test, and said my piece. As I glanced over at Laura, I saw her eyes starting to well up. My eyes started as well. That’s why I love teaching developmental mathematics.

Laura went on to pass elementary and intermediate algebra, eventually transferred, and got a bachelor’s degree.

“Laura” – If you are reading this, thank you.

I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. If there are topics you’d like me to address in future Potpourri articles, send in your requests through the contact page on my web site. Be sure to check out next Thursday’s article.  – George

November 19, 2009 at 9:59 pm Leave a comment

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