Testing probability theories with students

One of the things that has excited me after building computational tools for my students is using those tools to facilitate play. I really enjoyed, for example, doing Dan Meyer's money duck lesson with my 10th grade students as the opener for the probability unit. My experiences doing it weren't substantially different that what others have written about it, so I won't comment too much on that here.

The big thing that hampered the hook of the lesson (which motivated the need for knowing how to calculate expected value) was that about a third of the class took AP statistics this year, so they already knew how to do this. This knowledge spread quickly as the students taught the rest how to do it. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

I modified the sequel. I'll explain, but first some back story.

My students have been using a tool I created for them to sign up for reassessments. Since they are all logged in there, I can also use those unique logins to track pretty much anything else I am interested in doing with them.

After learning a bit about crypto currency a couple of months ago, I found myself on this site related to gambling Doge coins. Doge coins is a virtual currency that isn't in the news as much as Bitcoin and seems to have a more wholesome usage pattern since inception. What is interesting to me is not making money this way through speculation - that's the unfortunate downside of any attempt to develop virtual currency. What I've been amazed by is the multitude of sites dedicated to gambling this virtual currency away. People have fun getting this currency and playing with it. You can get Dogecoins for free from different online faucets that will just give them away, and then gamble them to try to get more.

Long story short, I created my own currency called WeinbergCash. I gave all of my students $100 of WeinbergCash (after making clear written and verbal disclaimers that there is no real world value to this currency). More on this later.

After the Money Duck lesson, I gave my students the following options with which to manage their new fortune in WeinbergCash:

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 5.17.26 PM

Then I waited.

After more than 3,000 clicks later, I had quite a bit of data to play with. I can see which wagers individual students are making. I can track the rise and fall of a user's balance over time. More importantly, I can notice the fact that just over 50% of the students are choosing the 4x option, 30% chose 2x, and the remaining 20% chose 3x. Is this related to knowledge about expected value? I haven't looked into it yet, but it's there. To foster discussion today, I threw up a sample of WeinbergCash balance graphs like this:

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 5.24.49 PM

Clearly most people are converging to the same result over time.

My interests in continuing this experiment are buzzing with two separate questions:

  • To what extent are students actually using expected value to play this game intelligently? If you make the calculations yourself, you might have an answer to this question. I haven't parsed the data yet to see the relationship between balances and grade level, but I will say that most students are closer to zero than they are their starting balance. How do I best use this to discuss probability, uncertainty, predictions, volatility?
  • To what extent do students assign value to this currency? I briefly posted a realtime list of WeinbergCash totals in the classroom when I first showed them this activity. Students saw this and scrambled to click their little hearts away hoping to see their ranking rise (though it usually did the opposite). Does one student see value in this number merely because it reflects their performance relative to others? Is it merely having something (even though it is value-less by definition) and wanting more of it, knowing that such a possibility is potentially a click away?

I had a few students ask this afternoon if I could give them more so they could continue to play. One proposed that I give them an allowance every week or every day. Another said there should be a way to trade reassessment credits for WeinbergCash (which I will never do, by the way). Clearly they have fun doing this. The perplexing parts of this for me is first, why, and second, how do I use this to push students toward mastery of learning objectives?

I keep the real-time list open during the day, so if students are doing it during any of their academic classes, I just deactivate them from the gambling system. For me, it was more of an experiment and a way to gather data. I'd like to use this data as a way to teach students some basic database queries for the purposes of calculating experimental probability and statistics about people's tendencies here. I think the potential for using this to generate conversation starters is pretty high, and definitely underutilized at this point. It might require a summer away from teaching duties to think about using this potential for good.

3 Comments

Filed under programming, reflection, teaching philosophy, Uncategorized

3 Responses to Testing probability theories with students

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    This is awesome! Here's one question I have: If you set up a new mystery button, could they determine what its rules are?

  2. Impossibly badass. Both the original setup and Andy's suggested follow-up question.

Leave a Reply