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IES Grant

Title: Focused Computer Games that Promote Specific Cognitive Skills
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Mayer, Richard Awardee: University of California, Santa Barbara
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (8/1/2015-7/31/2018) Award Amount: $1,499,976
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A150417

Co-Principal Investigator: Homer, Bruce; Plass, Jan

Purpose: The research team will develop and pilot test game-based interventions for students in middle school through early college that are intended to improve the executive function (EF) skills that are needed to enter rigorous academic disciplines. EF predicts success in many academic disciplines, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); however, explicit instruction in EF is rarely part of formal or informal education. The specific project goals are: (1) to design and develop a suite of three games that target three key components of EF (i.e., shifting, inhibition, and updating); (2) to collect evidence on the feasibility of implementing the games in education settings; and (3) to assess the potential benefit of the EF games for students' academic outcomes.

Project Activities: Researchers will develop three games over the course of the project. Each game will address a single component of EF (shifting, inhibition, or updating). In each year of the grant, the research team will develop one of the games, introduce it to small groups of students, and conduct small-scale experiments to test different features of the game.

Products: This project will result in a suite of games intended to improve executive function skills for middle school, high school, and college students as well as peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Studies will be conducted in laboratory and field settings (after school programs and at home). Participating postsecondary institutions will be located in urban settings in California and New York. Participating middle and high school after school programs will be located in urban settings in New York.

Sample: Participants include middle school, high school, and college students. Researchers will recruit approximately 500 students, with equal representation from each education level, to participate in the iterative development process. Approximately 270 students, similarly with equal representation from each education level, will participate in the pilot studies. Participants will come from an ethnically and economically diverse population.

Intervention: The intervention is a suite of EF games intended to improve EF skills and, consequently, learning in reading, math, and science for middle school, high school, and college students. Each game will target a different component of EF (shifting, inhibition, and updating).

Research Design and Methods: The research team will employ an iterative design approach to develop and refine the suite of EF games. They will also use laboratory studies to systematically study the value added by specific design features to further refine the games. Finally, the research team will conduct pilot studies using the final versions of each game to determine its promise for impacting students' EF skills, which will in turn improve learning in domains that have been found to be associated with EF (specifically reading, math, and science). The pilot studies will also examine the feasibility and fidelity of implementation of the games in authentic education settings. For each game, researchers will randomly assign students to play the EF game or a game that does not target a specific cognitive skill. The research team will give all students pre-tests of EF, mathematics, science, and reading comprehension skills. Students in both conditions will play the game for 8 weeks, at least one hour per week. At the end of the study, all students will get post-tests to assess their EF, mathematics, science, and reading comprehension skills.

Control Condition: For the pilot studies, students in the control condition will play a game that does not target a specific cognitive skill.

Key Measures: During iterative development, researchers will use semi-structured interviews, video-based observations, and field notes. The research team will record all game play using screen and video capture software. For the laboratory experiments, primary measures of EF skills will include the Stroop, Anti-saccade, and Stop Signal tasks (for inhibition); the N-back task, Keep Track, and Letter Memory tasks (for updating); and the Letter-Number, Color-Shape, and Category-Switch tasks (for shifting). Pretest-to-posttest changes in the subcomponents of EF (shifting, inhibition, and updating) will be the primary measure. The subskills are correlated but separable constructs, so a composite score will be created for each by combining performance on three tasks that have been shown to load on a single, hypothesized factor. Laboratory experiments will also include eye-tracking, physiological, and emotional response measures. For the pilot studies, the EF measures used in the laboratory studies will be collected along with a researcher-developed fidelity of implementation measure and a set of researcher-developed mathematics, science, and reading comprehension tests.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will use hierarchical linear modeling to compare the effects playing on EF skills as well as the effects on students' literacy, math and science skills.


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Homer, B.D., Plass, J.L., Ober, T.M., and Ali, A. (2017). Improving high school students' executive functions through digital game play. Computers & Education, 117: 50–58.

Mayer, R.E. (2015). On the Need for Research Evidence to Guide the Design of Computer Games for Learning. Educational Psychologist, 50(4): 349–353.

Parong, J., Mayer, R.E., Fiorella, L., MacNamara, A., Homer, B.D., and Plass, J.L. (2017). Learning executive function skills by playing focused video games. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 51: 141–151.

Plass, J.L., Homer, B.D., and Kinzer, C.K. (2015). Foundations of Game-Based Learning. Educational Psychologist, 50(4): 258–283.