Research project

Improving Maths Through Digital Games

Research in the area of digital game-based learning (GBL) in primary schools.

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Start date

January 2007

Completion date

January 2008

Several of our projects have investigated digital game playing in school, the most influential being conducted in 2008 by Miller (then Senior Lecturer at University of Dundee) and Robertson (then an adviser with Learning and Teaching Scotland). Miller was responsible for the research design, data analysis and academic dissemination; Robertson led the training and later dissemination to practitioner audiences.

The study was the first of its type in this field: a nationally-based randomised controlled trial investigating learning gains from the use of a commercial digital game (Miller & Robertson, 2011).  It built upon a previous exploratory study investigating mental computation skills and self-perceptions (see Miller & Robertson, 2010). A pre-post design involved 634 primary school children (age 10–11) from 32 schools across Scotland. Schools were randomly assigned to experimental or control conditions. In experimental schools, children used games consoles for 20 minutes each day, running a ‘brain training’ game.

Controls continued with their normal routine. Treatment period was 9 weeks. Significant pre-post gains in accuracy and speed of calculations were found in both experimental and control groups. Gains in the experimental group were 50% greater than those of the controls in accuracy, and twice those of the controls in terms of speed. The least able children showed the greatest gains in accuracy. These findings have considerable educational significance: computational skills are basic building blocks for future learning, and the least able children are often hardest to motivate.

The nature of the research design, including the sampling method and the outcome measures involved, allows confidence in generalizability. This was the first – and, to date, the only – study of this type in relation to the use of digital games. Please note: although the academic paper was published in 2011, the research findings had been shared with teachers and policy makers in Autumn 2008 at the Scottish Learning Festival. The impact dates from that time.

In addition to that randomised controlled trial, and the exploratory case-study which preceded it, other projects have added to our understanding in this field. One which has provided insights into the ways in which a digital game can be integrated into mainstream project work was the ‘The Nintendogs Project’ (reported in Miller, Robertson, Hudson & Shimi, 2012). That study was one of very few to gather systematic data in early years classes about the benefits for teachers of using a digital game as a contextual hub for formal curriculum work.

Using a mixed-methods approach, four early years classrooms were investigated over a ten-week period. The aims of the study were to learn more about teachers’ integration of the game into learning activities, and the effect of the project on broader aspects of children’s development as well as learning in basic skills. Key findings included benefits in terms of personal and social development (motivation, self-esteem, social interaction) and engagement with spoken and written language tasks. Again, this work has been shared at conferences targeted at practitioners and been reported in the press (e.g. Sunday TimesTimes Educational Supplement).

Details of the impact

The work has impacted upon policy and practice in primary schools by providing empirical evidence of learning gains from GBL. (Note: education in Scotland is devolved within UK; consequently, the impact relates mainly to Scotland, although evidence is also provided of wider reach.) Impact was enhanced for three reasons: first, the focus on core educational skills; second, the high ecological validity of the studies (that is, the fact that they were conducted in ‘typical’ state schools); and, third, our close working relationship with government agencies, increasing opportunities to influence policy direction. We worked with various staff at Education Scotland (formerly LTS), including the National Advisor for Emerging Technologies and Learning, on several projects.

Members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) were also involved. These partnerships help ensure that a) our findings enter policy discourse promptly, and b) practical advice is shared on the Education Scotland website, which is consulted regularly by teachers in Scotland and beyond ( 

Impact can be evidenced at several levels:

  • At the National level: [in addition, section 5, sources 1,2]
    • Since the publication of our study, the Scottish Education Secretary has officially endorsed GBL (26.12.2009)
    • As indicated above, Education Scotland maintains a website which sets the agenda for policy and practice in Scotland. A section of the site is devoted to GBL, ( including a practitioner-focused summary of the Miller and Robertson RCT, ( 
    • One facility offered to teachers is the loan of sets of game consoles for enthusiasts to employ our methods. Since our Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) presentation in 2008, when the findings from the research were made public, these consoles have been in great demand from schools across the country.
    • Other national forums –
      • The SLF has been pivotal. This is an annual event targeted at teachers, administrators and policy makers e.g.
      • Co-investigator Derek Robertson has presented at various national and international practitioner and policy-focused conferences, and our work has helped to change the nature of the discourse around GBL. For example, the Handheld Learning Conference, 2008, in London
  • At a regional level: the research and development work has had an impact on policies across Scotland, including the following: [section 5, source 3]
    • South Ayrshire
    • Midlothian
    • Glasgow
    • Fife  
  • At the school level: [section 5, sources 3,4,5,6,7,8,9] 
    • After our presentation at the 2008 SLF, Learning and Teaching Scotland made available the same game console and game combination at a discounted price. 2131 sets were purchased by schools and authorities. Typically, schools purchased between 10 and 30 sets, but some authorities bought considerably more (e.g. Torbain Primary School, Fife, 180 sets). Clearly it is difficult to say how many schools across the country have developed GBL as a direct consequence of this work, but from the LTS offer alone, over 100 schools had ordered sets. Many other schools ordered sets independently of this offer.
    • Estimating the number of schools and children for whom GBL is now part of the curriculum is difficult. Using one of the 32 Scottish authorities as an example: Fife (120 primary schools, with over 26,000 pupils) has developed guidelines and materials to support teachers in using GBL in primary classes. The Curriculum Development Adviser responsible for this work is on record as acknowledging the role classroom-based research plays in convincing teachers of the educational value of GBL.
  • Impact at the level of influencing public debate: our work has been widely reported in the media [section 5, source 10]
  • Other forms of impact
    • Teacher education also contributes to impact on practice in schools, as follows. We produce about 120 new primary teachers each year; several cohorts have entered schools since 2008, knowledgeable about this work and enthusiastic to develop GBL in their class. Many other Universities now include GBL on teacher education courses.

Key research outputs

  • *Key paper for this impact case study: Miller, D.J. & Robertson, D.P. (2011) Educational benefits of using game consoles in a primary classroom: a randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42 (5), 850-864. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01114.x
  • Pilot study which preceded it: Miller,D.J. & Robertson, D.P. (2010) Using a games-console in the primary classroom: effects of ‘Brain Training’ programme on computation and self-esteem. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (2), 242-255. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00918.x
  • Practitioner-focused report for British Educational Research Association: Miller, D.J. & Robertson, D.P. (2012) Computer game improves primary pupils’ arithmetic. Insights, Issue 3, Summer 2012.
  • Early years study: Miller, D.J., Robertson, D.P., Hudson, A. & Shimi, J. (2012) Signature pedagogy in the early years: the role of COTS game-based learning. Computers in the Schools, 29 (1-2), 227-247.
  • DOI:10.1080/07380569.2012.651423

Evidence of quality of the research

Focusing specifically on the key study (Miller & Robertson, 2011): an important characteristic is methodological rigour. Many publications in the field of digital game-based learning have not reported outcome measures; those that have done so have been small in scale, or been characterised by methodological weaknesses, or both. This study, a nationally-based randomised controlled trial, was the first of its kind in this field; as far as we know, it remains unique. The study was selected by the British Educational Research Association as one of the three Insight publications for 2012, a series of publications where significant research reports are re-written for a practitioner audience.

Research Grants

2010. Research into game-based learning in primary schools: ‘The Nintendogs Project’, a classroom-based study looking at the ways in which a commercial computer game can be used by teachers for learning and teaching purposes. It was funded by Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS). Miller was the PI: £29,000.2010. Research into the use of GBL to improve primary to secondary school transitions: ‘The Guitar Hero Project’. Again funded by LTS, this followed on from previous successful projects in the area of game-based learning, this time looking at a commercial computer game being used as part of a bridging project between primary and secondary school. £ 32,000. Jindal-Snape (at the time, Reader in Education at University of Dundee) was the PI; Miller was co-investigator.

Related groups

Education and Society

Project type

Research project