Remember the days of Oregon Trail? How about Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? While learning games have been around for decades, technological advancements are creating an entirely more modern gaming experience—one where quality mirrors the digital literacy expectations of today’s student, one that entices the student to play and play again, and one that aligns a game’s outcomes with the goals of the course.
Every game teaches the player something, from the very basics of how to play the game to achieving the game’s objectives, whether it be killing zombies or winning races. As Eli Neiburger points out in the paper “The Deeper Game of Pokémon, or, How the World’s Biggest RPG Inadvertently Teaches 21st Century Kids Everything They Need to Know,” entertainment games are proven to teach very complex skills and knowledge.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, knowing how to kill a zombie or effectively battle Pokémon doesn’t necessarily translate to a useful skill. Below are three key components to successful game-based learning:
1. Mastery: What Level is Acceptable?
Mastery is a key component of measuring what a student has, in fact, learned. What do students receive if they achieve 90 percent mastery? In most situations, they receive an A, yet 10 percent of knowledge has been left on the table. And what about students who receive a B or C?
Consider what happens if students leave knowledge on the table year after year, from elementary school to college. While they may be earning A’s, there is a significant compounding knowledge gap.
Think about this: how would you feel if you knew the pilot who is flying your plane achieved 90 percent mastery? My guess is uncomfortable at best. Now imagine if I told you that the pilot achieved the 90 percent mastery by watching someone else, reading about it, and hearing lectures about it. Are you going to get on that plane? I know I wouldn’t. Yet this passive learning approach is exactly what we are offering students today, and then we wonder why they are not competent in the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
Thankfully, this is not what is happening in the aviation industry. All pilots undergo rigorous hands-on training before they are allowed to fly. The same holds true for engineers, doctors, firefighters, police, and numerous other professionals who participate in experiential learning and on-the-job training before they are considered competent in their fields.
Now, take an experiential learning game. Students simply can’t progress to the next level until they achieve 100 percent mastery of the current level.
(Next page: 2 more components to successful game-based learning)
2. Motivation: How Many Times is a Student Willing to Try?
Most learning games will not allow the student to proceed to the next level if he or she achieves anything less than 100 percent. Yet achieving 100 percent mastery doesn’t just happen. It requires practice, repetition, and oftentimes, failures.
In the typical classroom, it is unacceptable for a student to make 10 or 20 attempts to master a concept, and failure is somewhat public.
However, when studying effective learning games within the LIVE Lab in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M University, we have seen that students play games assigned as homework an average of 10 times between 2 and 4 hours each time. This indicates not only engagement, but also removes a student’s fear of failure, reinforcing the fact that multiple attempts are not only okay, but encouraged.
When students play games they are not afraid to try something and fail. If the games are well designed, students will try and try again as they are intrinsically motivated to succeed and achieve 100 percent mastery. We call this the desire for the epic win. With fully immersive and interactive games, students benefit from experiential learning, mastering the content they need, which ultimately translates to useful skills.
3. Merit: What is the Role of the Student Learning Objective?
Having said all of this, games should not be viewed as a silver bullet or a replacement of the instructor by any means. Like any other medium, they have their place and are one tool at a teacher’s disposal.
Building effective learning video games is not just an art and a science. Game development is time consuming and costly, assuming the game strives for entertainment quality and that the learning game production meets student digital literacy expectations. Karl Kapp provides a great introduction to learning game design in his book, “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education.”
Learning video games should always start with the end in mind. What do we want the player to learn? Or what is the Student Learning Objective (SLO)?
Once concrete SLOs are identified based on instructional design theories, then the assessment is defined to determine how students will be evaluated on mastery of the SLO(s). It is important that the SLO is integrated into the game (i.e. not solving a math problem and then playing the game, but solving the math problem as part of progressing through the game). When deciding if game-based learning is the right form or method for any given SLO, faculty will want to assess how the game fits into the syllabus or lesson plan, as well as the time it takes to play the game.
Not a Real-Life Replacement
In my opinion, experiential learning is key, in whatever form it takes. Video games are not meant to replace real-life experiences if they can otherwise be obtained.
For example, if you can take your students into a forest for a lesson on the natural environment, why utilize any other means? Technology, and specifically game-based learning, should not be viewed and used only because it exists, but it should be used because it enhances the experience or allows students to experience something otherwise not possible, like a historical event.
While I believe we will have effective learning games for every subject in the future, today there are few available. Unfortunately, there is not a single source that can test and rate the effectiveness of learning games.
However, the power of game-based learning is coming to light in significant ways through immersive experiences that allow students to connect with content on a deeper level. Game-based learning makes curriculum relatable, driving knowledge mastery, inspiring motivation, and boosting measurable learning outcomes.
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