Should Students Learn A Musical Instrument Or Play Educational Video Games?

Do you think that educational video games could improve your child’s grades? Do you think that educational video games could teach your child “non-gaming” skills required to achieve success in life?

There is certainly a movement going on in the direction of implementing educational games into the classroom. For better or worse, it will be showing up to a classroom near you. I just don’t want you to get excited just yet.

In this article I will discuss a study done by the DimensionU Gaming Suite, which is becoming a very popular educational video game that schools are beginning to implement in their classrooms. I will then draw a comparison to another “supplemental activity,” which is learning a musical instrument in order to give you a perspective on how to improve your child’s education.

DimensionM is the Math video game of a larger gaming suite called DimensionU that covers other subjects such as Science and Reading. Below you will a read the summary of the study that DimensionU posts on their website.

Case Study: Pender County Study (UNC Wilmington)

Conducted in 2008, this study looks at the effects of DimensionM in the setting of a rural middle school of roughly 500 students, where only 63.1 percent of students were either at or above grade level on state-mandated End-of-Course testing for math.

  • Mean scores increased from 46% on the pre-test to 63% on the post-test
  • Male and female students demonstrated equitable gains

Not bad. The results are certainly encouraging, though after reading the in-depth report, (which I downloaded off their website), I was not as excited as I was when looking at the summary above.

Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

My opinion is that the summary is very misleading. They make it sound like they did the study on 500 students. Look above again. Isn’t that how you interpret the first sentence of the study? In actuality, they did the study on 34 students as it states in the full report. Is it me, or is that a big difference? I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being misled.

The truth is that out of 500 students in that particular middle school, only 63.1% of the students were at or above grade level in their end-of-year exams in Math. However, the gaming study was experimented on only 34 of the 500 students. In the full report, these 34 students were all below-average in Math.

Now, let’s look at the first bullet point of the study above. I don’t like the use of the word “mean.” The word sounds too scientific and covers up the real meaning of the point. Instead of “mean scores,” I would prefer “average scores” in this context. We’re not looking at any complex data here. It’s simply the average pre-test scores of the children before they began the “remediation course” or “gaming course” which I prefer to use.

It’s also important to point out that the students who participated in the study were below-average students with failing grades in Math. So certainly, there would be plenty of room for improvement by having an hour of “supplemental” activities every week for 7 weeks as the full report states. The results were that the average pre-test score went from 46% which is clearly a failing grade, to a 63% which is also a failing grade, though greatly improved.

The second bullet point is true and backed up in the report. Both boys and girls improved equally on average.

So What Else Is Wrong About This Study?

There are still some “unknowns” about this study and educational video games in general. One is, (and the full report acknowledges), that we still don’t know what the results would be of the games on standardized test scores. A second unanswered question is, How would the skills attained through educational gaming be useful in non-gaming situations? And thirdly, What are the cognitive processes used to employ these games and how can they be or could be applied to develop other academic and life skills?

I have one more big question about these games, since they claim to have an instructional component to them. DimensionM has an instructional section where students can go to in order to learn the material necessary to move on to the next level in the adventure. They must master the material to advance forward in the game.

I would like to know, if the game asks the exact same question in every level, so that the student can guess and use the process of elimination in order to move to the next level. If that’s the case, what are the students actually learning? They would just be memorizing answers if this is the case. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer because there is no information regarding this issue in the full report.

Is This An Attack On Educational Video Games?

If you’ve read this far, you may infer that I’m attacking DimensionM and other educational video games.

I am not attacking educational video games in general. I am personally in favor of some supplemental activity to improve test scores. Clearly, scores can improve with the implementation of this game. What I am attacking, is the misleading studies that put this game and others in a more favorable light than they should be.

I would like to know if this game would improve the already above-average students’ grades in Math. I would like to know if this game can only improve a failing students grades to barely passable levels, or can it make a good student “great.” I’m thinking about how our students can compete with rest of the world and not just trying to help the below-average ones.

What is the difference between two students that take the same exact class with the same teacher and one fails and the other gets an A? Is it about the parents and the home environment, or something neurological or chemical? Can gaming solve all of these problems?

A New Interactive World

The full report also claims that most students are surrounded by 6 hours of interactive media everyday and are evolving into learning only with interactive media. I have a very hard time accepting this. Where is the child getting 6 hours of media from? At home? Well, the parents need to limit that time, moderate it, and control it ferociously.

I don’t know of any geniuses or great minds throughout history that have developed their intellect by playing educational video games. The intelligence of mankind has not “evolved” with the advent of gaming.

An Ancient Interactive Tool For Learning

I get frustrated sometimes when I see the excitement when a new technology emerges that makes life just a little bit easier. Though I see the benefits and potential for educational video games, my view is that we already have an activity that we can use not only as an outside-of-the-classroom activity, but one that already has the scientific data and countless brilliant minds that have made use of it to their benefit.

I’m talking about learning a musical instrument, and learning how to play and read music. If you’ve ready my articles about Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Albert Einstein and Steven Spielberg, then you know that music has an enormous impact on the development of an intelligent mind.

Below are three case studies and their summarized results found in three nationally recognized research organizations.

    • The Journal For Research In Music Education In 2007 Found That Elementary School Students In Top-Quality Music Programs Scored 22% Higher In English And 20% Higher In Mathematics Than Their Non-Musical Peers. June 2007; Dr. Christopher Johnson, Jenny Memmott
    • The American Chemical Society Found That Nearly 100% Of Past Winners In The Prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition (High School Students) In Science, Math, And Technology Played One Or More Musical Instruments. The Midland Chemist (American Chemical Society) Vol. 42, No.1, Feb. 2005
  • In A National Report By The College Board Documented That Students Of Music Continue To Outperform Their Non-Arts Peers On The SAT. In 2006, Students Of Music Performance/Music Coursework Scored 57 Points Higher On The Verbal And 43 Points Higher On The Math Parts Of The SAT. The College Board, Profile of College-Bound Seniors National Report for 2006

The Differences Between Learning Music & Educational Video Games

If you read the summaries above, you may be thinking, “well, you just gave us the summary of the results just like DimensionM did and you didn’t go into the full in-depth report.” That’s true. And that’s why I listed my sources at the end of each study for you to read yourself. I encourage you to read the studies and see for yourself. However, I don’t know of too many people who would refute the cognitive benefits of music education. If anything, there are many people that are unaware of the benefits.

Below you will see two lists: one that summarizes just some of the scientific data found on the affects of studying music, and the other that summarizes the data found in the DimensionM study above.

Students Of All Grades/Abilities Involved In Music Education

  • 22% Higher Test Scores in English
  • 20% Higher Test Scores in Math
  • Nearly 100% of winners in Science Competitions
  • Score 57 points higher on Verbal SAT
  • Score 43 points higher on Math SAT

Below-Average Students Involved With DimensionM Educational Video Games

  • No Data found for Test Scores in English
  • 17% Higher Test Scores in Math
  • No Data found for winners in Science Competitions
  • No Data found for affects on SAT scores

Am I Being Unfair?

I will admit that I was a little unfair towards the DimensionM study because I compared several studies of music against one study of an educational video game. But, there are other case studies done by this gaming suite that provide similarly overly-hyped results. And all of the gaming suite studies were done on only below-average students while the music case studies were done on students of NOT just below-average students, but of all averages high and low.

I would also add that the music case studies were done by independent organizations that had no product that they were trying to sell. There was no special interest. On the other hand, the gaming studies using DimensionM were done by the same company trying to market its own product. Certainly, the facts would be sugar-coated. There’s no other way to see it.

Parents & Teachers: The One Thing You Should Take Away From This Article

Clearly, I have basically weakened the merits of DimensionU, one of the leading educational video games in the market. If this game or another is available to your child as a supplemental activity to help raise poor test scores, I would do it. Yes, I said to do it. It can’t hurt as long as it remains “supplemental.”

I would highly recommend that you try to get your child started in learning a musical instrument as soon as possible. The reason is because it takes time to develop the cognitive skills that come from learning music that will then translate to good grades and academic enthusiasm. The sooner the better.

Also, the benefits of learning music are more scientifically conclusive than educational games. I would not get too excited or fixated on the idea that video games can improve your child’s test scores in Math. Games have a long way to go before they can compete with music.

Technology cannot solve all of our problems!

The long term benefits of a music education are too long to list in this article. If you want to learn more, I have written many articles about the effects of music education on the mind.

Tony Margiotta is the founder of The Musiconomy, a publishing company advocates musical training as an essential focus in childhood education and development. Sign up for the Free monthly newsletter and special report here:

Tony is the author of “A Parent’s Guide: How To Get Your Child Started In Music,” a step-by-step approach that takes you through the process of inspiring musical interest in your child, to making the correct instrument and book purchases, and finding the right teacher. Full of tips, checklists, and more.


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