Why I Have a Love-Hate Relationship With Review Games in Math

I love competition…to the point that my husband is usually embarrassed when we have game nights with friends because I am so overly competitive. Of course, I love review games because the competition provides instant engagement and motivation (without sacrificing the purpose of the review game—learning).

Unfortunately, not all review games are equal. There was a time that I really wrestled with review games because while they were engaging, they could very easily be destructive to students’ self-esteem in math if we aren’t careful about the review games we choose to play. Some review games place a high value on the wrong things.

I didn’t want to completely eliminate review games from my classroom because I think there are definite benefits to these games (learning to work together as a team, high engagement, etc.), but I also wasn’t willing to have my students participate in something that might reverse the hard work I had done to boost their confidence and esteem in math.

In order to have the best of both worlds, I created a few review game “considerations” that I refer to when deciding whether a review game is something I am want to play with my students. I really try to keep these considerations in mind when coming up with new review games, but of course there are always exceptions. There are some review games that my students and I LOVED that meet two of these considerations but not all. Think of these review game considerations as food for thought :)

I think it’s important to clarify that I am not against review games that don’t meet these considerations. These are just the things I have seen can cause problems for students in my own classroom and because of that I’ve tried my best to look at review games differently moving forward. Also, throughout this post I am really referring to whole group/whole class review games and not games like Jenga or CandyLand at a math station.

Here are the three things I think about when choosing a math review game or creating a new one!

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Consideration #1: Speed is not the focus.

There are two reasons for this… 1) I believe two students can have an equal understanding of a math concept and still complete the same task in two very different amounts of time and 2) I do not want students to sacrifice deep thinking for the sake of winning a game.

When review games are focused on getting the right answer before someone else or getting as many right answers as possible before another person or group, inevitably students begin to internalize that speed is what makes you good or bad at math. On top of that, students typically begin throwing all the strategies we’ve taught them out the window just to win a review game and be faster than their opponents. Who needs to take the time to read the entire problem anyway? Checking our work? There’s no time for that!

This standard is pretty much a non-negotiable for me. It is possible for students to compete while still having the necessary time to think deeply about the math they are doing. We just have to be aware of this when selecting review games. It simply isn’t fair to penalize our thorough thinkers because of the time it takes them to do math.

Consideration #2: You cannot tell who is ahead or behind.

This is one that I don’t always follow, but I think is important to consider. There are some great games that are fantastic for review where students can tell who is in the lead. The reason for this consideration is that inevitably students will begin to make assumptions about themselves and others. If they see a certain student or group of students in the lead, they may assume that they are the “smart kids.” If they are the student or group of students in last place, they will likely take on negative feelings about themselves as math learners. This is destructive and no review game is worth this, even if it only impacts one student.

I recognize that in sports and other competitive activities, knowing who is in the lead is necessary. Kids are likely to experience these same positive or negative thoughts about themselves based on the success of others in different aspects of life. I personally don’t think math classrooms are the place for students to learn to deal with these experiences, especially when we know the battle that is students’ fragile mindsets about math. If I can choose a review game that doesn’t have the potential to tear down their math esteem, I will.

I find that if I play a review game where students can tell who is in the lead or who is in last place, it is better if they are playing in groups because they are less likely to take on those negative feelings about themselves personally.

Consideration #3: The students do not control when the game is over.

This consideration is strictly because of management. I like games that are time-based instead of games that end when a student wins or loses. First, this gives the teacher the control over how long the game lasts. I can’t be the only one who has had a game end way sooner than you expected it to or had a game last waaaay too long.

Second, I don’t have to try and figure out what a student is going to do if they win before everybody else has completed what I’ve planned for them to do. I also don’t have to figure out what a student is going to do if they get “out” of the game. There is no motivation in getting “out” and then being told that you still have to complete the work while everyone else finishes playing.

I’ve found that review games where students are earning points and the winner is determined after a set amount of time have just as much engagement as the review games where students are competing to be the first to win. If that’s the case, why not choose review games that are time-based?

Here are review games that I love!

I’m sure at this point you are wondering what games I actually do for review since it may sound like I’ve eliminated just about every review game with these three considerations. I still definitely did review games and my kids LOVED them, but they looked different than they did when I first started teaching and wasn’t really aware of the impact (both positive and negative) that these games could have on students! Check out these Review Games Your Students Will Love! I have played these with my own students and they have always been class favorites!

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you have a love-hate relationship with review games too? What is your students’ favorite review game?

EngageBrittany Hege