Science & Tech

University Students Who Play Calculus Video Game Score Higher On Exams

A Texas A&M study shows that a video game developed by students and faculty in its visualization department helps improve outcomes for students studying calculus, a prerequisite for STEM degrees with a high failure rate.
By Elena Watts, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications February 13, 2019

A student plays ‘Variant.’

Photo courtesy of Triseum

An educational video game initially developed by Texas A&M University visualization students significantly boosts students’ scores in introductory calculus, one of the toughest classes to pass on a university campus.

The game, “Variant: Limits,” connects mathematics and gameplay in a 3D adventure in which students stop geomagnetic storms that threaten their planet’s survival by solving a series of increasingly challenging calculus problems. It was born in a collaboration of viz students and an interdisciplinary group of university faculty who work together in the Department of Visualization’s LIVE Lab.

Innovative, effective measures to teach introductory calculus are in demand because too many students are failing. In fact, 22-38 percent of university students, depending on their preparation, failed calculus at more than 200 colleges that participated in a Mathematical Association of America study.

Without successfully completing calculus requirements, they are unable to earn degrees in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as many business and architecture disciplines.

“We know students have fun playing ‘Variant: Limits,’ and that playing the game helps them connect more deeply with the class content, but now we have empirical evidence that directly ties gameplay to stronger learning outcomes,” said André Thomas, a visualization professor and CEO of Triseum, a game-based learning company, which also developed, then marketed the game.

The empirical evidence comes from a study led by Michael Stephenson, vice provost for academic affairs and strategic initiatives at Texas A&M, which revealed that students who played “Variant: Limits” scored higher on class exams.

Stephenson and university science and education faculty also found that more time spent playing the game corresponded with higher exam scores.

The fall 2018 research project involved more than 2,000 Texas A&M engineering calculus students. An experimental group of almost half of the students played “Variant: Limits” while the study’s control group were not given access to the game.

Screen capture of ‘Variant’ gameplay.

Photo courtesy of Triseum

All of the students took the same exam, and participants in the experimental group scored higher than those in the control group. Additionally, students who completed the game saw the biggest jump in scores on the exam.

“Students who played a video game that corresponded with course content taught during the first two weeks of the semester scored higher on the course exam when compared to those who did not play,” Stephenson said. “It is an encouraging sign that a game played over such a short period of time provided a small but statistically significant increase in exam scores.”

In previous research, 79 percent of students agreed that “Variant: Limits” increased their knowledge of limits and 83 percent reported they were able to apply their knowledge from the game in class.

As the White House calls for alternate methods and technology to improve STEM education*, research on the impact of novel education technology remains largely unexplored, Thomas said. Texas A&M is helping change that.

“Students deserve every opportunity to succeed and educators need to give them access to tools and technologies that move the needle,” Thomas said. “‘Variant: Limits’ is doing that by helping students perform better in calculus so they are prepared for degrees and careers in STEM fields.”

“Variant: Limits” is one of two educational video games that will be featured in the Texas A&M [Power] House at the upcoming SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, March 10-12.

* This link is no longer active and has been removed.

Media contacts:

  • Kristi Emerson, Triseum, 303-885-9896,
  • Diane Oswald, Texas A&M College of Architecture, 979-458-0442.

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