Carnegie Mellon University
hn1_phd_hcii_2024.pdf (9.87 MB)

Addressing the Gender Gap in Middle School Math Education through Digital Learning Games

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posted on 2024-02-27, 20:48 authored by Huy Anh NguyenHuy Anh Nguyen

  There is an established gender gap in middle school math education in the U.S., where girls  report higher anxiety and lower engagement than boys, which negatively impacts their  performance and even long-term career choices. While digital learning games, with the ability to  promote learning motivation and outcomes, have the potential to address this gap, there have  been mixed results regarding gender differences in learning with games. Furthermore, prior  research on the gender effects of learning games remains focused on the distinctions between  boys and girls, without accounting for the spectrum of variance in gendered behavior, which can  develop as early as middle school.

  In my work, I have identified Decimal Point, a digital learning game that teaches decimal  numbers and operations to middle school students, as an excellent platform for studying gender  effects in digital learning games. Based on data from five prior Decimal Point studies with over  1,000 students, I have observed a consistent gender difference across all studies– girls tended  to have lower prior knowledge, but better self-explanation performance and higher learning  gains from the game. The difference in self-explanation also explains the relationship between  gender and learning outcomes, suggesting that girls’ better learning could be attributed to their  self-explanation performance. At the same time, there were no differences in how boys and girls  enjoyed the game, indicating that digital games can help close the gap in learning while not  sacrificing enjoyment for all students.  

I conducted two follow-up studies to better understand the reasons for the observed gender  differences and the extent to which they generalize. In both studies, I also employed a  multidimensional representation of gender, one that captures not only birth-assigned gender and  gender identity, but also gender-typed occupational interests, activities and traits. The first study  investigated how self-explanation and different learning platforms influenced the relationship  between gender and learning outcomes. The second study examined the ways in which gender  differences in learning outcomes and enjoyment manifested when changing the game narrative.  Results from both studies indicated that, across different learning platforms and game  narratives, girls learned more than boys thanks to their better performance in the  self-explanation activities. Furthermore, analyses of multiple gender dimensions led to a more  nuanced understanding of the gender effects than analyses of binary gender alone. For  instance, while boys generally reported higher levels of engagement with the game than girls,  analyses of multidimensional gender further revealed that girls with strong masculine-typed  behaviors were also more engaged than others.

In summary, this work contributes (1) robust evidence of the benefits of self-explanation in  helping girls learn from digital games, (2) insights on the use of multidimensional gender  representation to capture nuances in gender differences with respect to learning, enjoyment and  game preferences, (3) guidelines for designing effective learning games to bridge the gender  gap in math education. In a broader sense, this research will advance knowledge on the  multidimensionality of gender in learning game research and inform practical recommendations  on aligning game features with individual learners to optimize learning and engagement.  




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Human-Computer Interaction Institute

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Bruce McLaren John Stamper

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