Making Math Fun with Collaboration, Games, and Formative Assessment

By Math Educator and Guest Blogger Christine Younghusband

When many people think about mathematics, they often think of tests, quizzes, and drills. Memorizing math-facts, trying to get the right answer, or doing the “right steps” to an algorithm can sometimes overshadow the true fun of mathematics. As educators, we’re in an exciting position: we can actually bring out the excitement and joy in mathematics by approaching math assessment in a creative way that’s both enjoyable for students, and useful for educators.

Let’s focus on the formative in mathematics. Formative assessment forms and informs learning for the student and teacher. When I taught secondary mathematics, I facilitated a collaborative-competitive year-end summative review game with my students. I love the tension between collaboration and competition. Students work together, learn together, and succeed together. It’s an opportunity to build collective efficacy where students are not trying to do better than one another, but rather do better together. I adapted this game many times since my practicum 25 years ago. It used to be called “math baseball.” Overtime, I called it “math olympics.” The rules of the game embrace shared learning and leading.

The class is divided into groups of four. I made the teams of four based on student achievement, social groupings, and leadership tendencies. I liked that students learned from someone else in the class to challenge their thinking but also learned math from different perspectives. Teams self-selected a team name, team colour, and team mascot (aka. small stuffed animal). Each player for each team was one of four suits: heart, diamond, spade, or club. The game begins with a math question. Each question has a level of difficulty (e.g. Level 1 = easy/knowledge, Level 2 = medium/understanding, Level 3 = hard/higher level thinking). The questions during the game should reflect what students should know and understand for the summative assessment. There were no tricks or secrets.

Teams would solve the question collaboratively. Each team varied in approach. It was the team’s responsibility to ensure that all team members knew and understood the question and solution. As the teacher, I was the facilitator, game official, and team catalyst. I would help teams who need a little help to get started. Once all teams solved the problem and self-identified their readiness to compete, a card is randomly selected from a deck of cards. The suit chosen is the player that goes to the board to answer the question. These students were not allowed to bring the group’s solution to the board. He or she was expected to answer the question independently on the board with a calculator or formula page, if needed. Competitors are given a reasonable amount of time to answer the question while team members could support their teammate with non-verbal cues. The room is really quiet.

Once competitors have demonstrated their math understanding on the board (without cheating, of course), the official (that’s me) determines if the solution is right or wrong. No part marks are given during this game. The solution must meet expectations to acquire points for that question. The number of points awarded are based on the level of difficulty of question (e.g. 1, 2, or 3). If all teams get the answer right, then all teams get points (regardless of who finished first). For those competitors who answered correctly, they get an added opportunity of competing in a mini-game of tossing their team mascot into a bucket or towards a target for an extra point. This is when the class gets LOUD.

Mistakes and academic risk taking are welcomed. Incorrect solutions give the class an opportunity to engage in analysis and look at possible math errors, why they occur, and how it could be better. It’s also an opportunity to look at different approaches to questions and discuss how these solutions would be evaluated “on the test.” Students can ask questions, challenge the game official, or deepen their understanding of the subject matter. I would only demonstrate a solution on the board when all competitors were incorrect. This was a learning opportunity for me to reteach content but also understand what students excel at or struggle with and reflect on what I could do better next time with this content.

In this summative review game, formative assessment is ongoing and continuous. Students are focused on their learning and learning from and with their peers. I love it when we would play this game for a week and students still want to play. It’s collective sense making that is playful, interactive, and intrinsically motivating. EVERYBODY IS A WINNER.

Christine Younghusband is a recent doctoral graduate of the Educational Leadership program at Simon Fraser University. She is an affiliated scholar at the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy and sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University. She is a former secondary mathematics teacher with 16 years of experience and currently serves as a school trustee on the Board of Education on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. Christine is passionate about teaching and learning and her research interests include mathematics education, professional learning, subject matter acquisition, and education policy. She loves looking at systems and finding ways to enhance the learning experiences of students.

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