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Bingo as Teaching Tool: Gaming in the Mathematics Classroom

Kathleen Offenholley, Mathematics

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Every semester in statistics, I dreaded when the time came to do my introductory lecture on hypothesis testing. I am not a big fan of long lectures – I prefer to have my students learn by doing, whether by collecting their own data to analyze, or by puzzling out the meaning of lurking variables in a correlation. For example, I recently gave them the following to puzzle out: A study in Denmark showed that beer drinkers have lower IQ’s than wine drinkers, by an average of 18 points! Working in groups, the students figured out a few reasons that might be behind this strange result. One student, Crystal, said, “Well, there’s a whole different kind of person that drinks wine,” and a lively discussion followed from there, that included the relationship between IQ and class, and some insightful comments on the poorer educational opportunities available to people who have less money.

However, hypothesis testing is a topic that contains so much vocabulary and so much new information, that a lecture seemed the only way to deliver all that content quickly. Each semester, I would carefully write out all the definitions and ideas, then deliver them to my students, watching as they got more and more overwhelmed and disheartened. “It’s okay,” I would reassure them, “you’ll be fine at this with more practice.” It was true – after a couple more classes, they would know all the vocabulary, and would be able to start doing some analysis. But I still hated that first day, and I believe they did, too.

I am sure many of us have experienced similar frustrations as we try to engage our students. Learning is often difficult, sometimes tedious. Our students don’t have that stamina for sitting and listening that we managed to develop in graduate school – they text on their cell phones, they leave to go to the bathroom, they talk during lecture. All this is true. But I did finally figure out how to cure my hypothesis-test lecture problem – and the students were actually laughing. No one left the room, or snuck in a text message – they were all too busy trying to get a bingo.

My breakthrough came at a meeting of the CUNY Games Network. One of the participants mentioned vocabulary bingo. You can find free bingo card generators on the Internet that will randomize your vocabulary words onto bingo cards. I decided I would do something often advocated at CUNY Games – I would modify the game to fit the pedagogical needs of the classroom. I didn’t just want my students to listen for the words – I wanted them to listen for the meanings as well.

The next class, I passed out bingo cards to each student, warning them not to flip the cards over. On the other side of the card, I told them, was a matching exercise, where they would have to see if they could match each bingo word to its meaning. Then the bingo game began!

According to the rules, students could only make an X on a bingo square if I said that word (or phrase) within the lecture, not if a student said it. Students were scrambling to get me to say what was on their card. “Say, professor,” said one of them, grinning, “would you say that rejecting the null hypothesis means accepting the alternative hypothesis?”

“Yes, that’s right, rejecting the null hypothesis means accepting that the alternative is true.”

“Bingo!” shouted someone. We kept playing. I had told them that I wanted to see several bingos before they turned over the cards.

Many bingos later, I said they could turn over their cards. I challenged each group to match the most words or phrases to their meanings. It was a difficult task, but they were all still smiling from the game, so they did it cheerfully. 
What’s different now? Not so much, and yet, everything. I give the same plodding, careful lecture, trying to make sure my words are just right and that I give them all the needed definitions. Yet now, they leave the class laughing.

Further information about the CUNY Games Network and about using games in learning can be found at: http://games.commons.gc.cuny.edu/.  The BMCC faculty interest group on gaming meets several times per semester at the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship (formerly the TLC).

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