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What’s the importance of virtual manipulatives in assessment preparation?

Manipulatives pioneered by such thought leaders as Maria Montessori and Friedrich Froebel, have been a mainstay in mathematics education since at least the mid-1980’s, and studied for their efficacy by Robert Marzano, among others. Naturally, budgetary and other logistical obstacles have given rise to the use of virtual manipulatives—web-based representations of manipulatives—in the math space as a supplement to or replacement for physical manipulatives.

Virtual manipulatives are so accurate and engaging these days that, soon, almost every student in the nation will have first-hand experience of using these educational tools—but for assessment rather than enrichment.

What assessments will have virtual manipulatives within them?

In an effort to increase the rigor and complexity of high-stakes assessments, manipulative objects will appear regularly on the next generation assessments for both consortia tasked with creating the assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced. Smarter Balanced, for instance, calls these items “performance tasks” and they will be used to “integrate knowledge and skills across multiple standards—a key component of college and career readiness.”

What do these items look like?

Virtual manipulative items on the next generation assessments look much the same as tasks you might have already asked students to perform with physical or virtual manipulatives. For example, one of the released sample items from Smarter Balanced asks students to compute how much space can be covered by a certain equation that represents tile blocks. Then, once they have that calculation, they are to fill in a virtual wall, block by block, with a rectangle that represents the full coverage of the tiles.

This should not be much of a challenge for students of the online generation (if they are prepared to compute the equation, of course). Clicking and dragging are second nature to today’s students. The difficulty might come for students who are used to compartmentalizing their online “play” with their book-based schoolwork. Perhaps the skills do not translate, leading to confusion when met with a blank screen of squares.

What can you do to help students prepare?

A few studies have been done to measure the efficacy of physical manipulatives over virtual versions. One done by researchers at Kansas State and the University of Wisconsin found that each set of manipulatives have inherent advantages, but greater efficacy can be achieved if physical manipulatives are used before virtual versions. Another, from MIT, focused on the engagement and accessibility of digital manipulatives for students. However, virtual manipulative use in these new assessments might tip the balance. Their test prep capabilities provide a new, significant advantage.

Start integrating the use of virtual manipulatives in your curriculum, if you haven’t done so already. There are plenty of resources, some of which align Common Core standards to manipulative tasks, including:

Are you using virtual manipulatives for assessment preparation? Share your best practices at