Guest Contributor: Dan Petrak, Des Moines Area Community College.

Though every course has different objectives and aims related to a particular field of study, all instructors desire that students become truly engaged in — and perhaps even engrossed in — their courses’ material. Today, Dan Petrak of Des Moines Area Community College shares how gaming has increased engagement and motivation in his developmental math courses.

Have you designed games for your classroom? What prompted you to do so? What outcomes did they help your students achieve? Share your input in the comments section. 


What is a game? Just the word “game” elicits thoughts of fun and freedom to play. The idea of using games to learn is not new, but the rising interest in the genre of “serious games” has the educational community buzzing. The explosion of hand-held devices and expanded access to the Internet has encouraged digital learning in and outside the classroom. The demographic of these digital users has also become more diverse with the average gamer being described as a 37-year-old female. So how can we tap into this trend and use digital games to learn math?

Mathematics and games share the defining traits of goals, rules, and a feedback system, but they differ in the last trait of voluntary participation. This is the primary goal for game designers: to create an environment where players are comfortable to explore and have fun while voluntarily engaging in the activity. Anyone who has played a well-designed game has experienced what we call “entrancing engagement.” This high level of focus is a result of the player being “in flow” with the proper balance of challenge and skill required to progress in the game. The instantaneous feedback loop of digital games is ideal to promote mastery of mental math and the use of mathematical rules. The leveling aspect in games also encourages targeted instruction and gives instructors feedback about what the student knows and does not know.

A challenge to using digital games for developmental math students is the lack of games with appropriate content and design. Many serious games for math stop at the arithmetic level and are designed for younger audiences. Adult students seem very comfortable playing puzzle games and prefer games that can be played in small bites of time around their busy schedules. I have observed students showing positive persistence to master math content they normally would have avoided at all costs by playing digital games. The use of digital games to learn math is a promising tool to engage and motivate the current and future generations of math students.

Dan Petrak is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and Faculty Liaison to Distance Education at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa and a former high school math and computer science teacher. He has been passionately researching and implementing new technologies and methods into his math courses for the past nineteen years. Dan has been active in professional development by presenting at conferences, designing and implementing faculty training, and serving on the Innovation and Teaching Learning Committee for the American Mathematics Association of Two Year Colleges. Dan earned his B.S. degree in Mathematics and Secondary Education from Buena Vista University, and his Masters in School Mathematics from Iowa State University. Currently, Dan is redesigning developmental math courses and co-designing digital games to promote mastery of math skills. Follow Dan on Twitter @dgpetrak

The Algeburst and Algeboats apps are available on iTunes for iPad. For more information, visit //