Super Tangrams

Introduction

Super Tangrams is a game designed by our Ph.D. student, Kamran Sedighian, with help from Nick Harvey, a former "EGEMmer", to investigate the effect of various design strategies on children's learning and attitude towards complex mathematical concepts. Kamran chose two-dimensional transformational geometry as the content area, and tangrams as the game activity. The object of the game is to fit various geometric shapes into a picture by using various techniques: translation, rotation, and reflection. The game not only teaches children basic geometry but also how to apply various linear transformation to form the desired patterns. By gradually reducing visual aids in each level, Super Tangrams also increase the challenge and cognitive responsibility for the players. Such additional difficulty of the game does not discourage children in any way from learning through playing because with background music, humorous pictures, and "Learn" - an interactive instructional aid, Super Tangrams truly engage players in an enjoyable learning "flow".

Abstract

(This abstract is taken from Kamran's thesis - "Interface Style, Flow, and Reflective Cognition: Issues in Designing Interactive Multimedia Mathematics Learning Environments for Children")

Many children find mathematics boring, irrelevant to their lives, and difficult to understand. These feelings are influenced by many factors. One of these factors is the learning environments in which children encounter mathematics. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends the use of interactive computer software in children's mathematics education. However, due to unique cognitive and affective needs, designing interactive software for Children is complex and challenging. There is need for systematic interdisciplinary research to provide developers of educational software with sound design principles. The purpose of this dissertation is to explore four main inter-related issues:

  • Designers of educational software often use 'Direct Manipulation' and 'Command-Based' interface styles. What role does the user interface play in multimedia mathematics learning environments? How do different interface styles influence learning?
  • Formal understanding of mathematical concepts is important. How should the user interface be designed to support children's learning of explicit, formal mathematical concepts?
  • Reflection is crucial to deep understanding of mathematical concepts. How should a learning environment in general, and the interface in particular, be designed to afford 'reflective cognition'?
  • Designers know little about how to structure tasks to promote the optimal psychological experience of 'flow'. How should a multimedia learning environment be structured to be conductive to experiencing 'flow' in learning? What are some design elements that can make children's learning of mathematics fun and enjoyable?

There are few, or no guidelines, for what constitutes effective human-computer interfaces for educational purposes. Due to a lack of proper interface design guidelines, designers of educational software for children often use the interaction styles that were originally designed for productivity tools. Recently, the casual use of such interaction styles for educational purposes has been questioned. This dissertation closely examines the issue of interface design for multimedia mathematics learning environments for children and makes recommendations for a new conception of interface manipulation styles resulting in more effective educational user interfaces.

To structure a mathematics activity so that it combines the two elements of fun and formalism and affords reflective cognition is not an easy task. This dissertation examines a model of structuring mathematical activities for children to support their learning. It also examines a number of design features that help make the learning activity more enjoyable. This dissertation makes recommendations on how to design multimedia mathematics learning environments to address children's affective, cognitive, and pedagogical needs. Moreover, this research contributes to an increased understanding of how to design better game-based educational software.

A few of the findings of this research are:

  • Interface design in educational software plays a crucial role in how learners interact with the educational content, and consequently how they acquire knowledge and what knowledge they acquire. The results showed significant achievement differences among students who used different interface styles. Interface techniques such as 'scaffolding' and gradual removal of visual feedback can promote reflective cognition and improve learning.
  • Direct manipulation graphical interfaces should be used with care in the context of interactive multimedia mathematics learning environments. The conventional interface design guideline calling for easier interaction and exertion of minimal cognitive load does not necessarily apply to educational environments.
  • By carefully taking into account children's cognitive and affective needs, the design can help children enjoy learning mathematics.
  • Inclusion of background music and visual aesthetics can make a learning activity more enjoyable.