FreeThrows gets students to complete practice drills in the fundamental skills of math.
The students do not compete against each other or against other teams. The entire class plays toward the goal of scoring enough points together to raise the game to a higher level and a higher degree of accuracy. Students are permitted to help each other.
Each game is timed. Each child must answer as many math problems within a minute or two, and each correct answer scores a point toward the class goal. Each child receives problems directed at the bottom and the top of his or her specific achievement level.
As the child progresses, the problems increase in difficulty. There are no flashing lights or noises announcing an individual student has reached a higher level.
The students are likely unaware that their problems are getting a bit harder. To maintain enthusiasm, each game is played only if a majority of students vote to do so.
The latest version of FreeThrows is based on the Common Core Learning Standards, the new national grade-by-grade learning goals Arizona students will be tested on in spring 2015. The computer version is being piloted for a third school year and is in its second version. It is now in schools in the Yuma and Littleton elementary school districts and Dobson Academy, a Chandler charter school.
Dobson Academy’s fourth-grade students attempt about 15 problems each two minute-session, if they are reaching the top of their level. Once a student moves up a level, he or she attempts fewer but more-difficult problems.
Slower students may be adding multiple-digit numbers while faster students are doing complex multiplication and division equations or working with fractions. The minimum goal for the fourth-grade teachers at Dobson Academy is 80 percent accuracy, and that has been the typical average, teacher Dedra Farester said.
“The kids are working as a team,” said Farester, who helped Huppenthal tweak the program since its launch at Dobson Academy in 2009. “It’s pure interaction. It’s different strategies to reinforce learning. You have your high learners and your low learners, and they’re all interacting with each other, and there’s continuous learning.”
Like many computer games, FreeThrows has rewards. Students receive accessories, pets, food and toys for their individual avatar, which also announces whether their solutions to the problems on the screen are correct.
What is different about FreeThrows is that students who receive the rewards are selected randomly by the computer. Each child has an equal chance of being recognized as a winner.
In the end, the best and worst students in math all feel excitement about solving problems, Huppenthal said.
“Think of what we achieved,” he said. “One student is at Level 16. We have another student at Level 83. It’s all about putting points on the board for your team.
“The idea is these kids can get their esteem back, the class is getting smarter and they’re moving up the ladder,” he said.