Thursday, April 7, 2016

Prodigy Math game (review)

Upfront,  I guess I'll reveal that I'm not being paid or otherwise sponsored to write this review. Once you read it, you'll be surprised that the idea ever occurred to you.

A good friend and fellow PROMYS supporter recently asked me to take a look at an online math game: Prodigy. The background sounded great: play, math, monsters, magic, adventure. What could be better? I spent a couple hours going through it and came away very disappointed.

Tracy Zager Big 3
Top 3 non-negotiable criteria, from this post:

  1. Time pressure: none (Prodigy Game passes this hurdle)
  2. Conceptual basis: none (PG fails this hurdle)
  3. Mistakes handled productively: no (PG fails this hurdle)

So Prodigy Game score 1/3 against Tracy's Big 3. In case you don't want to bother to read her post, passing grade is 3/3.

The good
Clearly, the team has spent a lot of time and effort on development. There are some aspects that reflect this:

  • Teacher back-end: this is where they put in their effort. Decent reports about student activity and teacher ability to pick focus questions (assignments) is nice. This functionality seemed on par with other edtech products I've used.
  • Look and feel/animation: pretty good, clearly another area they prioritized. The standard is well below a popular commercial/non-education game, but I would say their work here is only slightly below the cutting edge in edtech products. It is much better than the huge crowd of flash animated drill and kill games. 

The bad
Game theme: weak.

I think one reason I was so disappointed is that the premise starts out rather promising. We are going to explore a new world, gain experience, learn new spells, rather loot.

Unfortunately, each of these turns to disappointment. Most game play is driven by railroaded mini-storylines where we follow a guiding pointer along a linear path to retread locations we've seen before. There is limited opportunity or in-game reason to explore the world.

Gaining experience gives us extra hearts (capacity to take damage in magical duels), but this just makes the inserted mini-math quizzes longer. More experience feels like it makes the game less fun. Also, the way we gain experience is dueling random forest creatures, an activity that quickly seems pretty uninteresting and unmotivated (the forest creatures are just hanging out, they aren't bad/evil or doing anything wrong per se).

For each new spell, there is a cute animation showing the effects of that spell. However, they all have exactly the same in-game effects, so we never have a reason to care about the extra spells (though we do have to waste time and clicks choosing one each time).

Finally, they make two mistakes with the loot. First, we don't have a counter to keep track of how much gold we've collected, so it becomes hard to pay attention to that. Second, the vast majority of items you can collect or buy are only available for paid users.

The ugly
There is no math integration with game and theme. During each magic duel, we are forced to answer a math question as the hurdle to casting a spell successfully. That's right, doing math in this game is a cost that you have to pay!

This mechanic forces \math questions into the game play, but doesn't create any relationship relate to anything else about the game. The same format could be used for spelling, history, driver's ed, etc questions just as easily as math.

The math content itself is very weak. Unfortunately, the material included is pure drill, and even includes a lot that is really recall rather than skills practice. The questions had no context, no conceptual framework, were tedious. I literally found myself forming an active dislike of the material. Imagine what damage that could do for a kid who thinks this is a good representation of what math is!

What about....
Don't even get me started about the name "prodigy." Did the name bias me against the game from the start? Maybe, but I felt that my enthusiasm for games and the promised theme were stronger biases, so I still feel I gave the product a good chance.

This is a math "game" that I will never show to the three J's and I suggest you avoid it. Play Lure of the Labyrinth instead!


  1. Thank you for your review, I respect your opinion however I really have to disagree. We have used Prodigy for 2 years with my family and the growth in my children's abilities in math and their CONFIDENCE in tackling problems has been incredible.

    I feel the problem with much of your review is that its coming from the viewpoint of someone the program is not designed for, an adult. It would be like a child trying to review an automobile: "Cupholders and a TV in the seat? Awesome!!"

    You can't review a product like this honestly and fairly without involving a student.

    1. Some interesting points. Could you ask your kids to write a review of Prodigy? I'd be delighted to have them guest post. Nothing I saw in the product was at all related to tackling problems; I am eager to see what I missed.

      Also, I liked the idea of getting children to write car reviews. I will see if I can get my three to write a review of our family car.

  2. Does lure of the labyrinth require reading? My 7yo just found Prodigy and loves it so far, but I see how dull (and easy!) the questions are -- hardly any thinking at all, despite the fact that the program thinks it put him in 6th grade level. I highly doubt he is at a 6th grade level, but he can certainly solve problems far ahead of his ability to actually read them. I'd love something online he can work on himself. He loves board games too, but his 5yo sister doesn't, and I can only spend so much time ignoring her.

    1. Lure of the Labyrinth doesn't require reading. There are comics panels for the story, but kids can click on them to have the story read out.

      To set expectations, I should be clear that the challenges in LotL are considerably more difficult than Prodigy. You and your kids should expect to have to try them several times before figuring everything out.

      Some thoughts for your daughter:
      - Explore the huge range of non-competitive and non-game math activities. Art, music, puzzles, patterns, construction, etc, there is math for every taste.
      - Our middle kid also rejected competitive games for a long time. It just wasn't a fun environment when the older one had a big developmental advantage. We introduced some cooperative games (Pandemic, And Then We Held Hands), allowed them to play together on the same team, and made time for one-on-one time with a kid and parent.
      - Keep in mind a growth and change mindset. Even if she doesn't like some games now, that may change. Keep offering the opportunity to get involved, even if they keep saying no. (This is how we are dealing with broccoli...)

  3. My son has been doing Prodigy Game for three months and he loves it. None of the criticisms mentioned bother him. He just feels annoyed that I don't give him the membership. I got here because I was hoping it would say something about the benefits of the membership for him.

    1. It depends entirely on your objectives. What do you hope to achieve by buying a subscription?

      If your kid likes this game and you want something purely for your child's enjoyment, then I bet they will enjoy it more with a subscription b/c that will allow them to buy more stuff within the game. However, I would stand by my assessment that playing this game is a waste of time with a possibility of some harmful side effects (developing/encouraging negative attitudes about math).

      Not to start a fight, but ... I really encourage you to check out Lure of the Labyrinth. Since it is free and on-line, why not?

      If you feel compelled to spend money for an electronic math game, the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis and the brainquake games seem like much stronger bets. FWIW, I don't have any affiliations with these games either.

      If you do explore some of the other options, please let me know your experience.

  4. As an elementary school teacher, I have found Prodigy to be an amazing resource for my students. I am about to level students ability while still achieve heterogeneous collaboration. The most important growth that I have experienced through my students interaction with this app is their confidence with topics that they were previously unsure of. As I watch my students attempt problems that would have cause frustration and possible detachment from math concepts before, now forage their path to success. This confidence is not only apparent in their increase of productivity but, within their peer interactions.

    The difficult that I have experienced is through the connectivity which, is an issue based on my end with limited wifi capabilities.

    1. Could you give me an example of something your students had trouble with pre-Prodigy and were able to attack successfully after using Prodigy?

      As you can see from my review, all I experienced working through the game was recall of arithmetic facts. I didn't see any part of the platform that helped students learn or better understand any math.

      If recall practice is your target, there is another option I've seen work well: Game worth 1000 worksheets explained by Denise Gaskins. I'll admit that, like Prodigy, it doesn't get many points for deep strategic game play, but it also works without wifi and never has any connectivity issues (insert smileys)!

  5. I think you will be outnumbered here, Joshua, and that you should seriously reconsider amending your initial review. In my view as a parent and teacher, Prodigy Math is great as an adjunct to learning math. As your intial review suggests, this program might not be the best as a primary source for math instruction, but the program can't be beat for two equally important tasks -- encouraging kids to develop a love for math and to supplement the math instruction from school.

    1. Dear James,

      I'll take your comment as a sincere one, but I have to ask the same question that I have asked the previous commenters who said I'd gotten this system wrong: what is there in Prodigy that helps kids develop a love of math?

      Perhaps there is something, but I didn't see it and I'd like someone to point it out to me.

      You claimed "the program can't be beat," but I've suggested alternatives that do beat it, as far as I can tell.

    2. The answer is: I don't know, but after 4 months, my math-hesitant youngest (7yo) now says she likes math, and my oldest (8yo, now 9yo) who already liked math has now become much more conscientious about his approach to math (whereas before, it was his way or the highway). On some days we have to force them to play and answer a minimum number of questions per day, but the overall change in attitude over time has been clear; and yes, I definitely believe it was a causitive relationship.

      (Yes: when they were first introduced to it, they did about 2000+ questions on their own, but (fortunately) that level of excitement wasn't maintained; now we have a minimum number of questions per day (so long as the schools are shut due to covid), and they usually exceed that number a bit after the initial push to get started).

      I certainly wouldn't claim this relationship to be true for all kids. Maybe for some, maybe not for others. But rules are not as absolute as your post makes them sound: under some circumstances, I have seen "time pressure" act as a motivator and concentrator for my kids' learning (although usually not for conceptual problems). Under other circumstances, I've seen "learning from mistakes" simply cause exasperation (Prodigy seems to use a variety of heuristics to determine when my kids are getting frustrated with the questions - so I suspect this is why they do not emphasize "learning from mistakes"). Yes, PG has relatively little conceptual learning, but I don't mind if I am not completely replaced by a machine.

  6. I spent a minute looking at the website. Won't be able to do more for a while but will check it out. But it's basically Khan Academy with a basic game frame, right?

    I have no problem with Khan Academy and similar things for building skills fluency. If students enjoy this one more than gaining Khan stars then, you know, fine. But The amount of in-school time that class was spending doing this in the video seemed rather excessive. I would hope this isn't anybody's primary curriculum is all, just like I would hope Khan isn't anybody's primary curriculum (and yes, I know it is.)

    1. When I reviewed it, the math content was a lot less than Khan Academy. There are recall drills embedded in the game play: when you want to cast a spell, you're asked to recall a math fact.

      Is there more than that now?

  7. My 10yo daughter was introduced to this recently. She seems to enjoy the game theme, though I'm not convinced it'll have staying power. Whatevs.

    The most telling bit to me was that I noticed the problems seemed awfully easy for her. She said, "Oh yeah. I told it I was in second grade. Because the fourth grade version was asking me all sorts of things I haven't learned yet."

  8. Thanks for the heads up! I'll check out LotL.

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  10. My kid just got the account from school. He himself likes it and has paid himself to get it upgrade with the membership. Mom does not like it. It is more like a game than a math practice. therefore, you spent more time on the "learning". When you read the questions, they are way too easy. We recommend it for game, but not for learning.

  11. Hi, I just tried Prodigy and agree that it is very weak in math content. There is too much game that gets in the way. There is no teaching concepts at all. I found the patterning question with the graphs an odd way to use graphs. The question with adding or subtracting does not allow the student to enter the numbers in the order they should figure out the answer. I just did not care for this game at all. I am senior qualified for maths. I teach elementary school.