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Study Finds Ohio Math Scores Improved With VR/Gamification

In a study of 514 students across the state, conducted by the nonprofit WestEd, those who used a VR tool from the ed-tech company Prisms outperformed their peers who covered the same material in a more traditional way.

A woman wearing a VR headset.
A recent study of Algebra 1 classes in Ohio found that students whose coursework involved gamification and virtual realty (VR) from the ed-tech company Prisms outperformed their peers who learned the same material in a traditional fashion.

The researcher, the nonprofit WestEd, released its findings on July 20. The study was conducted between September 2022 and April 2023 at middle and high schools, mostly grades eight through nine, throughout Ohio. The final sample analyzed data from 21 Algebra 1 teachers and 514 students, according to the report.

WestEd Senior Research Associate Andrew Grillo-Hill said Prisms spearheaded the research, with WestEd being a secondary partner in the project, and it was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Participating schools were existing Prisms subscribers, but none of the students or teachers involved in the research project had ever used the tool before, Grillo-Hill said.

All participants were randomly assigned into two groups: a control group, which was taught Algebra in the traditional way, involving in-person teacher instruction, classroom discussions and assignments; and a treatment group, which used Prisms software modules and VR headsets. Over the course of three days, all students learned about linear functions (melting rate of glaciers related to rising sea levels), exponential functions (quantifying spread and containment of a virus), and systems of linear functions (graphing flight paths from the perspective of air traffic controls). The method of instruction differed between the two groups on the first two days, but on the third day all students and teachers were involved in the same traditional approach of classroom discussion and paper worksheets, Grillo-Hill explained.

Prior to the study, all students completed a pre-assessment exam on the same Algebra modules, and after the three days they took a post-assessment exam. On average, the students in the treatment group scored 11 percent higher than their peers in the control group, Grillo-Hill said.

As to why students in the treatment group performed better, Grillo-Hill said, “we’re still investigating.” He suggested the engaging and interactive nature of the VR method could be a factor. The use of VR headsets, where students cannot see their classroom peers and therefore cannot be distracted by what others are doing, might also play a role.

“Immersive VR is an emerging field,” Grillo-Hill said. “There are a lot of questions we’re looking at. There’s still a lot we don’t know. And we can’t rule out what we can’t find.”

In a video on the Prisms website, the student user, wearing a VR headset to view what looks like a video game, is challenged to restore power to a community after a winter storm damaged its electricity grid. The user also moves two light-activated handles with their hands to pinpoint locations on graphs and complete other tasks involving numbers and equations.

According to its website, Prisms was founded in 2020 with startup grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Its library includes software for pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and geometry, with platforms for high school chemistry, biology and physics slated to be released soon.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.