Why a Little Help Can Go a Wrong Way

Math Learning Game DreamBox

Mathrack Lesson

I’ve had variations of the following conversation with relatives a couple of times in recent months. Has something similar happened to you?

“She loves playing DreamBox and was doing fine. But now the questions are too hard and she’s getting frustrated.”

“Hmm… Have you perhaps been helping her with her answers?”

“Well… not… really. She hates getting questions wrong. So when she didn’t seem to understand what to do, I answered a few of the questions for her so she would get the idea.”

When Math Problems Become Problematic

As parents of young children we are all too likely to have encountered so-called educational games where the difficulty of questions appears to vary somewhat randomly. For example, I was sitting next to my four year old son while he was playing with a handheld game. I was quite happy to hear him get “7 plus 3” correct. This was followed by “1+1”, “1+2” and “17-11”. Whoa! Where did that last one come from? (He didn’t get it right).

Sometimes, in order to help our little ones progress past some of these overly difficult questions, we help them for bit and then breathe a sigh of relief as the questions get back to being more appropriate (at least for a while). Our help is often required for a few minutes in non-educational video games as well. So in a sense, we adults are being trained to help our loved ones when a program appears to get too difficult for them.

DreamBox Learning’s Approach

With DreamBox things are a little different. As one of the developers in charge of our GuideRight™ technology I consider it my responsibility to make certain we assess and adapt to each child as accurately as possible. That means ensuring that we optimally level right down to the individual question level. And that we adapt as necessary immediately based upon how the student responds to those questions. Ideally the questions are just challenging enough that they get the occasional one incorrect as they learn.

In fact, DreamBox continuously assesses and adapts to your child not only within a problem, but between problems, between lessons and between groups of lessons.

Math Learning Game Frog Race

Frog Race Level 2

Part of that process of recalibrating for each student between groups of lessons involves occasionally giving them a series of questions that might be a little too difficult for them. If they do well, we move them on to something that might rely upon the understanding they just demonstrated. If they don’t do so well, we then provide the comprehensive set of lessons they likely need to develop that understanding.

So with DreamBox, if you provide too much overt assistance, answer for your child, or let a sibling or friend play on their account, it is quite possible that the system will temporarily attribute levels of understanding – or misunderstanding – that do not accurately reflect that of your child.

What to Do When the Math Game Gets Tough

What should you do, when they turn to you for assistance? Try some of these approaches:

  • Encourage your child to make his or her best guess. Remind them it’s OK to make some mistakes. We learn a lot from the types of mistakes they make and will respond accordingly. (Really!)
  • Answer a question with a question. “What do you think?”
  • Click help.
  • Click help again. The second help is more explicit that the first help.
  • Ask your child to explain the game to you. Sometimes talking it through like this will give them the answer.

If all that doesn’t work, perhaps it’s time for a snack or a break.

Finally, remember that playing DreamBox is meant to be fun. If they are still having trouble with one or more lessons, don’t hesitate to click the feedback button and let us know.

Math Game Counting

Counting Placement

Nigel Green

Director of Personalization @DreamBox_Learn | Developer of Continuous Assessment and Adaptation | Former Teacher | Professional Musician | Bellevue, WA

  • While your explanation makes sense from an algorithmic perspective, the reality is that kids want parents to help. Asking open ended questions only goes so far when kids are simply not familiar with a game or the objects used to depict the task are not familiar.

    Also, in my child’s case her math capability far exceeds her fine motor skills. So she finds the interfaces for some games really difficult (not to mention we’re using my Mac which has a mouse suited for my fat hands, not her dainty fingers). That said, she gleefully exclaims “dad, move the 3 beads next to the 5 beads and that makes 8 which is 1 bead less than the 9 we just had”. So to me it seems that the UI must adapt to kids who have the concepts ok, but lack the dexterity to express that “in silico”.

    And in general, parents need to be the primary mentor — the game shouldn’t try to be the authority, regardless of how sophisticated its neural net back-propagation. So it should facilitate (even encourage) parental guidance (vs. direct parent answers which of course is counterproductive.)

    Perhaps you should treat this as a feature opportunity — suggest questions to parents when the child is struggling. For example, many of your games simply repeat the instructions over and over if the child is taking time to respond. Why not detect the delay and prompt parents with appropriate questions? Then parents are learning how to guide their child appropriately!

    In summary, while I think the learning algorithms are geeky cool, the reality is that parents need to learn how to teach their kids more than we need an impressive Bayesian classifier. Change the learning algorithm —- not the parent role as lifelong math mentor. Let it adapt to parental guidance (even alert us if it suspects we are being over zealous)…”Hey Dad, Junior’s last 5 answers have been 100% correct and really fast…are we helping too much??”

  • Melanie H.

    I was wondering if this happened accidentally (think 13 year old son having a blast “playing with 6 1/2 year old son) and now it is LEVELS beyond what my 6 1/2 year old can do. Is there a way to fix this?

  • Hi Melanie, it was great talking to you the other day! As you may remember, this was easily fixed. Just contact DreamBox Customer Support, either by calling us at 1-877-451-7845 between 8am and 5pm Pacific, or by e-mailing us at support@dreambox.com. We are always happy to reset your child’s curriculum to a more appropriate level.

  • Jeff C.

    My son definitely likes me to watch him play Dreambox. But, when he asks for help with an answer I suggest he try to figure it out on his own. I don’t give hints. I used to, but I stopped. However, after he answers a question, whether it’s right or wrong, I might make a comment. e.g. I see that you counted each and every dot to get to 13. Do you see that there are two rows of 5 red dots, that’s 10. Then, there are 3 white dots.. so that’s 10, 11, 12, 13.
    I only do this after he’s tried to answer himself. And, only infrequently. Is this kind of coaching/teaching within your “methodology?”

  • Hi Jeff – You have a terrific handle on how to best support your child. You’re giving him responsibility for his learning and you are providing validation and reinforcement when it seems most important. Thank you for your question, it will help other parents provide the best type of support to their children on DreamBox!