If you told me that students as young as first grade can learn to solve complex linear equations—an algebraic concept that generally isn’t taught until the seventh or eighth grade—in as little as 90 minutes, I would shake my head in disbelief. According to researcher and game designer Dr. Zoran Popovic, I would be wrong. In an experiment with huge implications for student success, he found this was entirely possible, provided that students are immersed in the right kind of learning ecosystem.

Popovic is the director of game science at the University of Washington. He’s best known for designing games that crowdsource scientific discoveries. For instance, Foldit is an online puzzle game in which players try their hand at folding complex protein structures—and their successes have given scientists a deeper understanding of biochemistry principles.

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But Popovic also has shown that students can learn very complicated subjects in a short amount of time with the help of carefully designed games and other environmental factors. What’s more, his research suggests that we should seriously rethink the reward systems we use to spur student success, especially for students who are struggling the most.

Popovic will be the opening keynote speaker at the 2017 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston July 26. In a fascinating 40-minute podcast I recorded with him recently, he discussed what his research tells us about learning, student success, and motivation.

The Big Mistake with Traditional Assessments

Schools are making a big mistake by rewarding students based on their proficiency and how quickly they arrive at a correct answer, rather than focusing on the problem-solving process, Popovich says. Instead of looking only at proficiency, educators should be looking at how students tackle challenges. For instance: “Do you know how to try many different hypotheses when you’re stuck, or do you run away the first time you (encounter difficulty)?” he asks.

To encourage student success most broadly, Popovic says educators should give their students open-ended problems or challenges to explore, then look at how they approach solving those problems.

In his research, he has sought to identify the factors that are most important to solving challenges successfully. Does the amount of prior knowledge in a particular domain matter the most? Does students’ proficiency or quickness with math skills matter?

(Next page: Data shows critical thinking assessments can boost student success)


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