Fractions War: Reflections from a non-traditional academic project

By John Vito Binzak

For many children and adults, fractions are not a fun math topic. Indeed, multiple studies have shown that learning how to solve problems with fractions and developing an understanding of what these complex number symbols mean is difficult for many people. Identifying how people learn fractions has become an important topic of study for cognitive scientists who specialize in numerical cognition. One reason for this interest is the mounting evidence indicating that knowledge of fractions in elementary school is important for later math success. For me (John Binzak, PhD candidate) and Elizabeth Toomarian (recent PhD graduate), investigating how people learn and understand fractions led us to wonder how our work in the lab could have educational implications. From these discussions came our idea to develop an educational app for iOS called Fractions War.

Fractions War is based on the classic children’s card game War. In War, a deck of playing cards is split between two players and each player flips over one card at a time to see whose card has the higher value (highest value wins). Round after round, the player who wins adds both cards to their deck until one player wins all of the cards. In Fractions War, players flip over two cards at a time, arrange them vertically to form a fraction, and then decide whose fraction has the larger value. We found this form of gameplay interesting for two reasons. First, even though the intention of War is not necessarily to teach players about number cardinality, players are nevertheless engaged in making rapid and repetitive magnitude comparisons. Second, these comparisons are made with playing cards, which convey number magnitude in both numerical (e.g. 7) and visual cues (e.g. 7 diamonds). Therefore, our goal in creating this game was to create a fun experience for students to develop a better understanding of fractions through a game that practices their knowledge in a low-stakes way.

Much of the numerical cognition research studying fractions learning has occurred in well controlled lab-based or school-based studies, but much less is known about how people learn about fractions in informal learning contexts. By designing Fractions War with a built-in data collection system, the game is designed to be both a learning intervention and a research tool. For instance, the game includes options to play with different cards that vary the extent to which visual cues (e.g. 10 diamonds) are present or absent. For players and teachers, these options diversify the possible ways to engage with the game and think about fractions. For researchers such as myself, this design feature allows us to test specific hypotheses regarding the extent to which these visual features may be critical for learning.

Based on my experience of developing an educational app inspired from my research questions, I would encourage other graduate students to identify potential opportunities to do the same. Making educational games is not a requirement for graduate students in Educational Psychology, nor is it a commonplace practice for cognitive scientists in the field. Rather, developing this app was an opportunity to express my personal motivation to help make better educational media and develop research-based principles for achieving these goals. Doing this work has provided an invaluable experience to see how skills developed in grad school could be applied in ways beyond academia. For example, developing Fractions War created opportunities to network with educational technology companies and interact with students at UW who have expertise outside of my discipline. Specifically, realizing our vision would not have been possible without partnering with four computer science students completing the Foundations of Mobile Systems and Applications course. Lastly, the interactions that came from organizing a team behind one vision, such as explaining research-based motivations to developers with no cognitive science background, were critical for developing my confidence in continuing this work going forward.

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