Investigating Gender Differences in Digital Learning Games with Educational Data Mining
Effective Years: 2022-2025
Despite evidence that gender differences in math achievement have narrowed or disappeared in recent decades, stereotypes about men being better than women at math emerge early in childhood and persist through adulthood. These perceptions appear to influence female students’ interest and performance in math, as well as their pursuit of STEM careers. Given the potential motivational benefits of digital learning games, games might provide a pathway for reducing math anxiety for female students while increasing their self-efficacy and interest in math. This project will explore whether digital learning games can lead to less math anxiety and better learning in female students, while not hurting male student learning. It will study learning with two existing digital learning games: Decimal Point, which teaches foundational math concepts (decimal numbers and operations) to 5th and 6th grade students; and Angle Jungle, which targets a similar age range (4th and 5th graders) and has a similar thematic design (i.e., a game map, cartoon characters), but with different game mechanics, content (angles), and instructional approach. The study will explore how and why Decimal Point has, over the course of several experiments spanning multiple years, consistently produced a learning advantage for female students. In doing so, investigators will identify principles regarding the relationship between gender and game features that can be shared with game developers and used in other games, starting with Angle Jungle.
This work will go beyond the traditional gender binary of male and female, analyzing multiple dimensions of gender, including gender identity (e.g., how much students feel like a boy, a girl, both, neither), gender typicality (e.g., How much students like to do the same things as other girls [boys], How much students feel they look like boys [girls]), and gender-typed interests, activities, and traits (e.g., how much a student feels affectionate or adventurous). The study will also investigate two pathways hypothesized to lead to gender differences: first, that the playful features of the games reduce the saliency of the math content, making it less likely to cue math stereotype threat (the stereotype threat hypothesis); and second, that the games’ thematic details are more appealing to learners who identify (more) as females, making the games more engaging for them compared to learners who identify (more) as boys (the engagement hypothesis). In Year 1, educational data mining will be used to infer students’ cognitive and affective processes while playing Decimal Point and compare data to the distinct processes predicted by these two pathways. In Year 2, investigators will assess whether the hypothesized pathways and gender differences replicate in the context of Angle Jungle. In Year 3, hypotheses will be further tested by manipulating Decimal Point’s emphasis on math content in one version of the game and enjoyment and playful features in another. The project will compare learning outcomes between the two versions to more deeply explore the stereotype threat and engagement hypotheses. The ultimate aim of this work is to provide insights into gender-based differences in learning from digital games, providing principles and guidance for other researchers and game designers in developing and revising digital learning games. Thus, the project has the potential to transfer Decimal Point’s success with girls’ learning outcomes to other digital learning games and advance knowledge on the multidimensionality of gender. Furthermore, findings will allow investigators to revise both games and make them available to thousands of late elementary and middle school students across the country. Even during this project, approximately 1,950 students—including many from districts with diverse populations and low math proficiency¬—will benefit from learning with Decimal Point and Angle Jungle.
This project is supported by NSF's EHR Core Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development. The program supports the accumulation of robust evidence to inform efforts to understand, build theory to explain, and suggest intervention and innovations to address persistent.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.