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Playing with stocks and skills

Students play a stock market simulator game that walks them through lessons on investing
90 PERCENT FLUENT—Most third-graders at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts reach grade level in math after playing a particular game that helps build their skills.
90 PERCENT FLUENT—Most third-graders at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts reach grade level in math after playing a particular game that helps build their skills.

Ten weeks before summer break each year, Jason Borrie makes a dramatic announcement to his social studies class at Northeastern Clinton Central, a high school in Northeastern Clinton CSD in upstate New York. An uncle of theirs has passed away, leaving each student $25,000 with one condition: they invest their inheritances in the stock market.

Borrie then brings his students into the computer lab, and logs them into HowTheMarketWorks.com, a stock market simulator game. A free program powered by advertisers, the site walks students through lessons on investing—explaining, for example, the difference between an exchange-traded fund (ETF) and mutual funds.

Students can then trade in real time and can invest in any company or index. The simulation ranks students based on money earned, and creates an incentive for them to follow corporate earnings statements, to study different investment vehicles, and to read financial news.

More than 300,000 high school students have used the site. It’s just one of a number of popular game-based instructional tools that use competition to motivate students to tackle math and personal finance topics that can otherwise be dry or abstract.

“It always makes disinterested students come to life,” Borrie says. This past semester, for example, a student who had spent the entire semester silent started seeking out Borrie before and after school to strategize which stocks he should buy.

Often, the students who excel at the game aren’t the typical high achievers. “It levels the playing field,” says Mark Brookshire, CEO of Stock-Trak, the company that makes HowTheMarketWorks. “It’s not always straight A students who are able to win—it appeals to a whole new set of kids and pulls the whole class into the project.”

Master math skills first

Before a student can hope to build a successful investment portfolio, they’ll need to master some basic math skills first—and there’s a game for that, too. Reflex, designed for elementary school students, mimics a traditional arcade video game format, and drills students in foundational math facts: basic addition, subtraction, multiplication tables and division.

In a typical game, a student must steer a ship away from an enemy vessel. In order to navigate to a new area of the screen, the student must answer basic math questions. Students earn tokens that they can spend on customizing their avatar, or game character, or on unlocking new games.

“It’s about getting them to master math facts in an environment they enjoy,” says David Shuster, founder of ExploreLearning, the company that makes Reflex. The program allows teachers to monitor—down to the millisecond—how long it takes students to answer math questions, with the goal of making the answers second nature.

Jennifer Friend-Kerr, a third-grade teacher in the Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts in South Carolina, has been using Reflex in her class for two years.

She has students play the game for 10 to 15 minutes, a few times a week. She’s built an elaborate incentive system to ensure the math facts stick. She awards candy and certificates to students who make progress. Only 19 percent of her students are fluent in grade-appropriate math facts. But when they leave, 90 percent of them have reached grade level.

“This generation is all about instant gratification and visual stimulation,” she says. “With games ... they are learning in an environment they are used to and enjoy.”


Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance writer in California.