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Game play

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Video: Click here to see a demonstration of iSTART-ME.

Game play

A computerized tutoring system developed by researchers at the University of Memphis motivates high school students by using computer games to make learning fun.

By Sara Hoover

“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” 

— HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Technology is evolving rapidly and, in some cases, has replaced jobs once held by humans. ATM machines and self-checkout lines have replaced human-to-human interaction with human-to-computer ones. Research led by Dr. Danielle McNamara, psychology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Memphis, is bringing that same idea to high school classrooms with the artificial intelligence program iSTART-ME.

The computerized tutoring system helps high school students comprehend science texts and other “deep learning” texts. iSTART-ME teaches self-explanation, which are interpretations students provide to themselves about what they have read.

“The goal is to help students to better understand challenging or difficult texts,” says McNamara. “It’s a strategy that allows students to work on their own to develop an understanding of what they are reading or listening to.”

iSTART-ME comes with a twist not found in traditional education stratagems and is one that most students should enjoy. Computer games are used to break the monotony of learning.

“If you want students to really spend a lot of their time reading deeply, then you’re going to have to address motivation and emotion,” says Dr. Art Graesser, psychology professor, who serves as a senior researcher and conceptual adviser on the project. “We were interested in how to improve that and the game approach is the obvious place to turn.”

The program trains students for two hours and then requires weekly practice sessions throughout the school year. The practice component includes a point system and skill bar, which allows students to play mini-games and a virtual board game.

“During practice, the quality of their explanations is tied to points. They receive points for how well they are doing,” says McNamara. “They’ll also have a skill bar, so they’ll have feedback on current performance as well as overall performance.”

Students can trade their points for perks, like changing the qualities of the on-screen environment, such as their character’s look or the color palette of the system itself. The other aspect is they can buy computer games. The program has a suite of six mini-games that last 10 to 15 minutes.

The mini-games are Card Sort, Bridge Builder, Secret Strategy, Balloon Bust, Dungeon Escape and Dice Wars.

In the original program, called iSTART (Interactive Strategy Training for Active Reading & Thinking), the practice component became very monotonous, and student motivation and interest waned. That’s why the newer version, iSTART-ME (Motivationally Enhanced), was created.

“The problem with (the original iSTART) is that practice over time becomes extremely tedious, painfully so, to go in weekly and have to self-explain a text with virtually no external motivation to do so,” says McNamara. “It was obvious it had to be more fun and there had to be some kind of goal structure imposed upon it. iSTART-ME is mainly a modification to the extended practice portion.”

Dungeon Escape, one of the six mini-games in iSTART-ME, helps motivate students and makes learning more fun.
Dungeon Escape, one of the six mini-games in iSTART-ME, helps motivate students and makes learning more fun.

The target users are ninth- and 10th-graders, but it can also be effective for 11th- and 12th-graders and early college students. The texts can be science or any other challenging writing.

Post-doctoral fellow Tanner Jackson (left) and Kyle Dempsey, doctoral student in psychology, test-play the interactive board game MiBoard.
Post-doctoral fellow Tanner Jackson (left) and Kyle Dempsey, doctoral student in psychology, test-play the interactive board game MiBoard.

“It’s been targeted mostly at science texts because I was initially funded by National Science Foundation. It really could be used for any challenging, expository texts,” says McNamara.

The original iSTART project began in 2001 with funding totaling more than $5 million, and is one of the numerous projects at the U of M’s Institute for Intelligent Systems. The Institute recently received more than $7 million to fund artificial intelligence projects that partner with the U.S. Navy, Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools and the U.S. Census Bureau, among others. (Visit the Institute’s Web site,, for a listing of its research projects.)

A paper storyboard of Dungeon Escape.
A paper storyboard of Dungeon Escape.

The iSTART-ME project began in 2008 with a $400,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, but the purpose is still the same.

To aid McNamara in making iSTART-ME fun and interesting, graduate students work with her to develop the mini-games and MiBoard, a multi-player, interactive board game.

Tanner Jackson (MS ’04, PhD ’07), a post-doctoral fellow, designs the mini-games.

“I’m doing the extensions and enhancements to change it from the original iSTART into iSTART-ME,” says Jackson. “I’ve designed how the tutoring system is situated within the board game and then all the mini-games. I work with all the programs to make sure everything is implemented correctly. It’s a fun job.”

He first does paper storyboards for each game. Then, Jackson plays through the prototypes and writes basic instructions to make sure the game plays consistently. After a series of revisions to the game and instructions, Jackson makes electronic storyboards. Those are sent to computer programmers at Old Dominion University, who then add their input and revisions until the game is complete.

Dr. Danielle McNamara
Dr. Danielle McNamara

“I was specifically interested in making communication between humans and computers more effective and efficient. I was very interested in improving that, and making it more enjoyable and motivating for students as well. Games are a natural extension to try to make learning more fun,” says Jackson, who hopes to pursue a game-design career.

“I’d be very interested in doing educational games, either as an academic or in the industry. It’s actually emerging very rapidly within the educational community. It’s a good meld between instruction and engagement.”

The other new component is the board game MiBoard. It uses the strategies and training from iSTART-ME to provide an environment where students can play together, learn from each other and practice new skills. The online game is based on an actual board game developed by former U of M student Mike Rowe (MS ’04, PhD ’08). The goal is to make it to the end of the board first and requires a minimum of three players. Since the game is online, students can play from anywhere. Players move forward based on their performance working with a text and reading strategies.

The gaming aspect is not only to engage students, but also to teach them relevant skills.

“They’re learning some important skills in games that you don’t get in academic content,” says Graesser. “Things like managing resources, understanding tradeoffs, how complex systems work that are nonlinear, how to communicate with large groups of people. These multi-party games for example, you learn those skills. You’re not getting that in normal academic content.”

Connie Thompson, a teacher at Millington Central High School, piloted the original iSTART with her ninth-grade physical science class during the 2007-08 school year.

“From a teaching standpoint, I can see how the strategies would be helpful on a regular basis if the student were a little more motivated,” says Thompson. “I did have some issues with students not being motivated and bored. At first, they were excited about it. After a few weeks, a majority of my students were not really interested in participating.”

When told about the latest version, Thompson was intrigued.

“I think those are excellent improvements that they’ve made with the system. Those are the type of things students are more interested in, and then connecting it to something that is going to benefit them as well. I think it’s going to be a good program.”

iSTART-ME is not patented and is expected to be completed within a year. The prototypes have been developed. The next step is for the computer programmers to build the mini-games and board game. Once completed, high school students will experiment with iSTART-ME to compare its effectiveness with the original iSTART.

McNamara and her team hope these additions reveal that students are more engaged and motivated in the learning process.

“An ultimate goal of iSTART-ME is to examine how these components that we’re adding influence the motivation of the student,” says McNamara. “Each change we’re making to the system can be tracked to some aspect of motivation for students. Eventually what we’d like to see is whether or not motivation is enhanced, either motivation for using the system or motivation to read science texts, by using these game-based components.”

A teaching method that, if proven successful, may revitalize the education system.

“There’s an argument if education, the formal system, doesn’t get its act together, they’re going to lose a significant portion of the youth,” says Graesser. “I think games are going to be necessary, not a luxury. We’re at the lead doing this at the University of Memphis.”

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Last Updated: 1/23/12