Technology, Knowledge and Learning

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 5–26 | Cite as

Testing the Impact of a Pre-instructional Digital Game on Middle-Grade Students’ Understanding of Photosynthesis

  • Katherine McMillan Culp
  • Wendy Martin
  • Margaret Clements
  • Ashley Lewis Presser
Original research


Rigorous studies of the impact of digital games on student learning remain relatively rare, as do studies of games as supports for learning difficult, core curricular concepts in the context of normal classroom practices. This study uses a blocked, cluster randomized controlled trial design to test the impact of a digital game, played as homework prior to instruction, and associated supplemental instructional activities, on middle grade students’ understanding of the process of photosynthesis. The role of the teacher as a potential moderator of the game’s impact on student outcomes was also investigated, using Classroom Assessment Scoring System-Secondary Edition (CLASS-S) observations as a measure of instructional quality. Study findings demonstrate that the intervention did not have a significant impact on student understanding of photosynthesis. The interaction of treatment teachers’ CLASS-S scores and students’ average photosynthesis assessment scores approached significance. This study suggests that when digital games are used as a step in the process of learning difficult conceptual material, teachers may need support and guidance to make productive connections between in-game experiences and the target concepts.


Applications in subject areas Pedagogical issues Teaching/learning strategies Photosynthesis Digital games 



We gratefully acknowledge support for this work from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Grant No. R305C080022. The research team would like to thank all of the teachers and students who participated in this study, as well as our advisory board members for their ongoing guidance and insight.


  1. Alderman, M. K. (2013). Motivation for achievement: Possibilities for teaching and learning. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Bloom, H. S., Richburg-Hayes, L., & Black, A. R. (2007). Using covariates to improve precision for studies that randomize schools to evaluate educational interventions. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 29(1), 30–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bloom, H., Zhu, P., Jacob, R., Raudenbush, S., Martinez, A., & Lin, F. (2008). Empirical issues in the design of group-randomized studies to measure the effects of interventions for children. MDRC working papers on research methodology. New York, NY: MDRC.Google Scholar
  4. Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. In A. Iran-Nejad & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education: 24 (pp. 61–100). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  5. Brophy, J. E. (2010). Motivating students to learn. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Buckingham, D. (2009). Beyond technology: Rethinking learning in the age of digital culture. In J. Pettersen (Ed.), Youth media democracy: Perceptions of new literacies. Proceedings of the youth media democracy conference (pp. 37–43). Dublin, Ireland: Center for Social and Educational Research.Google Scholar
  7. Cameron, L. (2002). Metaphors in the learning of science: A discourse focus. British Educational Research Journal, 28(5), 673–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chi, M. T. H. (2008). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), Handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 61–82). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  9. Chi, M. T. H., Roscoe, R. D., Slotta, J. D., Roy, M., & Chase, C. C. (2011). Misconceived causal explanations for emergent processes. Cognitive Science, 36(1), 1–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clark, D. B., Tanner-Smith, E., & Killingsworth, S. (2013). Digital games for learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Preliminary executive summary and brief.
  11. Connolly, T. M., Boyle, E. A., MacArthur, E., Hainey, T., & Boyle, J. M. (2012). A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers & Education, 59(2), 661–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Connolly, T. M., Stansfield, M., & Hainey, T. (2009). Towards the development of a games-based learning evaluation framework. In T. Connolly, M. Stansfield, & L. Boyle (Eds.), Games-based learning advancements for multisensory human computer interfaces: Techniques and effective practices (pp. 251–273). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. de Freitas, S., & Oliver, M. (2006). How can exploratory learning with games and simulations within the curriculum be most effectively evaluated? Computers & Education, 46(3), 249–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dede, C. (2009). Immersive interfaces for engagement and learning. Science, 323(5910), 66–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Deke, J., Dragoset, L., & Moore, R. (2010). Precision gains from publically available school proficiency measures compared to study-collected test scores in education cluster-randomized trials (NCEE 2010-4003). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  16. Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., & Wood-Robinson, V. (1993). Making sense of secondary science. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Duit, R. (2009). BibliographySTCSE: Students’ and teachers’ conceptions and science education.
  18. Enders, C. K. (2010). Applied missing data analysis. New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  19. Fraser, B. J. (1981). TOSRA test of science-related attitudes handbook. Hawthorn, VIC: Australian Council for Educational Research.Google Scholar
  20. Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  21. Gupta, A., Hammer, D., & Redish, E. F. (2011). The case for dynamic models of learners’ ontologies in physics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(3), 285–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hammer, D., Gupta, A., & Redish, E. F. (2011). On static and dynamic intuitive ontologies. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20(1), 163–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Helsper, E., & Eynon, R. (2009). Digital natives: Where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. International Telecommunications Union. (2013). Measuring the information society. ITU Publication No. 254.
  25. Juul, J. (2003). The game, the player, the world: Looking for a heart of gameness. In M. Copier & J. Raessens (Eds.), Level up: Digital games research conference proceedings (pp. 30–45). Utrecht: Utrecht University.Google Scholar
  26. Ke, F. (2009). A qualitative meta-analysis of computer games as learning tools. In R. Ferdig (Ed.), Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (Vol. 1, pp. 1–32). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ketelhut, D. J., & Schifter, C. C. (2011). Teachers and game-based learning: Improving understanding of how to increase efficacy of adoption. Computers & Education, 56(2), 539–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Koschmann, T., Hall, R. P., & Miyake, N. (Eds.). (2013). CSCL 2. New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A. R., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008). Teens, video games, and civics.
  30. Linn, M. C., Davis, E. A., & Bell, P. (Eds.). (2004). Internet environments for science education. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Malmberg, L. E., & Hagger, H. (2009). Changes in student teachers’ agency beliefs during a teacher education year, and relationships with observed classroom quality, and day-to-day experiences. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 677–694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mayer, D. P. (1999). Measuring instructional practice: Can policymakers trust survey data? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(1), 29–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Millstone, J. (2012). Teacher attitudes about digital games in the classroom. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop in collaboration with BrainPOP.Google Scholar
  34. Mullens, J. E., & Gayler, K. (1999). Measuring classroom instructional processes: Using survey and case study field test results to improve item construction. NCES 1999-08. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  35. Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Papastergiou, M. (2009). Digital game-based learning in high school computer science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation. Computers & Education, 52(1), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. PBS & Grunwald Associates, LLC. (2011). Deepening connections: Teachers increasingly rely on media and technology.
  38. Peugh, J. L., & Enders, C. K. (2004). Missing data in educational research: A review of reporting practices and suggestions for improvement. Review of Educational Research, 74(4), 525–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pianta, R. C., & Hamre, B. K. (2009). Conceptualization, measurement, and improvement of classroom processes: Standardized observation can leverage capacity. Educational Researcher, 38(2), 109–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Pianta, R. C., Hamre, B. K., Hayes, N., & Mintz, S. (2011). Classroom assessment scoring system-secondary (CLASS-S). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia.Google Scholar
  41. Pintrich, P. R. (1999). The role of motivation in promoting and sustaining self-regulated learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(6), 459–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Prensky, M. (2003). Digital game-based learning. ACM Computers in Entertainment, 1(1), 1–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Raudenbush, S. W., Bryk, A. S, & Congdon, R. (2004). HLM 6 for Windows. Computer software. Skokie, IL: Scientific Software International, Inc.Google Scholar
  44. Richland, L. E., Zur, O., & Holyoak, K. J. (2007). Cognitive supports for analogies in the mathematics classroom. Science, 316(5828), 1128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rideout, V.J., Foehr, U.G., & Roberts, D.F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.
  46. Roschelle, J., Knudsen, J., & Hegedus, S. (2010). From new technological infrastructures to curricular activity systems: Advanced designs for teaching and learning. In M. Jacobson & P. Reimann (Eds.), Designs for learning environments of the future (pp. 233–262). New York, NY: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Roth, W. M. (2013). On meaning and mental representation: A pragmatic approach. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  49. Schneps, M. H., Sadler, P. M., Woll, S., & Crouse, L. (1989). A private universe. Motion picture. Annenberg Foundation/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Math and Science Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.Google Scholar
  50. Schwartz, D. L., & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for learning: The hidden efficiency of original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22(2), 129–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sheingold, K., Hawkins, J., & Char, C. (1984). “I’m the thinkist, you’re the typist”: The interaction of technology and the social life of classrooms. Journal of Social Issues, 40(3), 49–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Slotta, J. D., & Chi, M. T. H. (2006). Helping students understand challenging topics in science through ontology training. Cognition and Instruction, 24(2), 261–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Slotta, J. D., Chi, M. T. H., & Joram, E. (1995). Assessing students’ misclassification of physics concepts: An ontological basis for conceptual change. Cognition and Instruction, 13(3), 373–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Smith, J. P., diSessa, A. A., & Roschelle, J. (1994). Misconceptions reconceived: A constructivist analysis of knowledge in transition. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(2), 115–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Song, M., & Herman, R. (2010). Critical issues and common pitfalls in designing and conducting impact studies in education: Lessons learned from the what works clearinghouse (phase I). Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32(3), 351–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Squire, K., Barnett, M., Grant, J. M., & Higginbotham, T. (2004). Electromagnetism Supercharged!: Learning physics with digital simulation games. In Proceedings of the 6th international conference on learning sciences (Vol. 6, pp. 513–520).Google Scholar
  57. Thomas, M. K., Barab, S. A., & Tuzun, H. (2009). Developing critical implementations of technology-rich innovations: A cross-case study of the implementation of Quest Atlantis. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 41(2), 125–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Venville, G. (2008). Knowledge acquisition as conceptual change: The case of a theory of biology. In O. N. Saracho & B. Spodek (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on science and technology in early childhood education (pp. 41–63). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.Google Scholar
  59. Vosniadou, S. (2008). International handbook of research on conceptual change. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  60. Vosniadou, S. (2012). Reframing the classical approach to conceptual change: Preconceptions, misconceptions and synthetic models. In B. J. Fraser, K. Tobin, & C. J. McRobbie (Eds.), Second international handbook of science education (Vol. 1, pp. 119–130). New York, NY: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wayne, A. J., Yoon, K. S., Zhu, P., Cronen, S., & Garet, M. S. (2008). Experimenting with teacher professional development: Motives and methods. Educational Researcher, 37(8), 469–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Young, M. F., Slota, S., Cutter, A. B., Jalette, G., Mullin, G., Lai, B., et al. (2012). Our princess is in another castle: A review of trends in serious gaming for education. Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 61–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine McMillan Culp
    • 1
  • Wendy Martin
    • 1
  • Margaret Clements
    • 1
  • Ashley Lewis Presser
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Children and TechnologyEducation Development Center, Inc.New YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations