Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Algebra Spoons - an Algebra Representations Math Game

All this month I'll be posting games from the Fall 2023 GAMES seminar at GVSU. This senior capstone was begun by Char Beckmann. See many of the games in this YouTube playlist. Many of the games completed in my seminar are in this playlist. In the seminar, we play lots of games and math games, the future teachers make a first video to promote a class math game that already exists, we develop a group game (a monster-themed middle school Desmos escape room and Math Heads, a number mystery game), and they develop a game of their own.

This post is sharing Corrina Campau's games - she was also the lead Desmos engineer on the escape room!

Her first video was for Jenna Laib's Number Boxes. Really an all time great classroom math game, it was extra influential to this year's seminar. Like Jordan Burnham's game Boxzee.

Corrina's original game has an original deck of cards, which would have multiple uses, but is great in her Math Spoons (Cards and Rules). What follows the video is her story of making the game, and some thoughts on why to play games in math class and which games are effective.

The Story of Algebra Spoons

Whenever I take a class at GV I am always trying to see how I can use the class to become a more effective, engaging math instructor.  In thinking about what my course content entails I became enthralled with the idea of having students differentiate between different function families.  We study linear, quadratic, exponential and logarithmic functions and so this became my starting point.  I wanted a game that would allow students to think about all of the function families as a whole.  After playing some of the games in class I decided that one of the games that could work would be to design a game like SET where students must match cards based on different attributes.  I kept thinking about SET and how I felt when I played the game.  Although I like the game, I don’t always have fun playing it because I am not necessarily the fastest player when looking at 12 cards and trying to find matching ones.  John mentioned Spoons in class one day, and I thought that was a really great idea.  I have always enjoyed playing Spoons and so decided to roll with the idea.  Thus, Algebra Spoons was born.  I began to think of the number and type of cards needed.  I decided to use linear, quadratic, and exponential function families with 4 cards in a set and 4 of each function family giving me a total of 48 cards per deck.  I knew I needed to include graphs, stories, equations, and tables, but I wasn’t sure if I should choose a theme or not.  I decided to use stories that related to GV students and even chose some stories like they had modeled in class – like the equation of the water as it comes out of the drinking water fountain.  I hoped that the stories would appear somewhat familiar to them even if the story was new.  Once the stories were written then I needed to make sure that the graphs showed the important characteristics of each story so that students would be able to determine the graphs that matched the stories with relative ease.  I also examined the tables and made sure to include the portion of the table that made the most sense when trying to match the cards.  For some of the quadratic functions I used vertex form and for some I used standard form.  In retrospect, I wish I had included factored form as well.  But making these cards took a considerable amount of time and thought, and unfortunately when I thought about factored form it was too late to change.  Having finalized the front of the cards, I decided to make something on the back to make the cards more visually interesting.  Thus, the spoons motif was added.  Ten sets of cards were printed on card stock and printed out in color.  

When I played the game with two of my MTH 109 classes, I first had them sort the cards so they could become familiar with them.  After they had a chance to match all the cards, I then passed out the spoons, and they started playing the game.  The students had so much fun!  I was overjoyed to see how they embraced this game, and this was so much more fun than doing a standard final exam review.  I would encourage all teachers to play this game as it really gives students a fun, enjoyable, and deep conceptual learning of different function families.

Why Play Games in the Math Classroom and What Makes a Game Effective?

Research shows that Games Based Learning (GBL), either digital or non-digital, in education is now one of the major learning trends of the 21st century.   So, why are teachers playing more games in the classroom, and what makes a game effective as a learning tool?  

First, for a game to be effective, a game needs to meet learning targets.  Once an instructor has decided upon what the game should help students learn then a game can be found or created that allows students to meet those goals.  In thinking about LeBlanc’s Taxonomy of Game Pleasures, we can understand the eight “primary pleasures” that arise from playing games and see how these game pleasures help to make games more enjoyable and when games are more enjoyable, they are often more effective.  

A game that requires fewer materials is typically better because there is less set-up and typically less time spent learning to play the game.  Having fewer rules or simplifying the rules is also important so students are not overwhelmed before they begin playing the game.  Games where students’ interaction with other players affects their play attract different types of players and can make the game more fun to play for all players.  A game that generates different situations or has the element of surprise can be more exciting and make players want to keep playing the game, and a game where an early advantage always causes a player to win is not as fun or effective as a game that allows all players an equal chance of winning.  

When I play games in my classroom, I look for games that yield the best results in the least amount of time.  I ask myself – what game can I play that allows students to understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create?  Games always make learning fun and interactive, so when I tell students we are going to play a game there is always some excitement in the atmosphere.  Games, if set up correctly, can provide low risk competition and meet learning targets in a manner that is more motivating for students.  The structure of the game allows students to engage in problem solving in a way which is typically more enjoyable and more effective.  Games create a more engaging learning environment and cause more students to pay attention to the teacher’s lessons, and they help students understand the concepts and retain the material better.  Games are also able to reach students of all levels and function as confidence builders.  In addition, game play encourages and deepens strategic mathematical thinking.  Playing games in the classroom also allows educators to easily include active learning in the classroom.  

Spending time creating games or selecting games that are already made is time well spent and worthwhile for students and a very effective way of presenting concepts, creating deep thinking, and motivating and encouraging students, and GBL should be included in every classroom.


Hui HB, Mahmud MS. Influence of game-based learning in mathematics education on the students' cognitive and affective domain: A systematic review. Front Psychol. 2023;14:1105806. Published 2023 Mar 28. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.11058

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