Engaging learners through games: Help or hype?

  • Select games that allow room for self-paced exploration and experimentation. Study after study has backed this up with empirical evidence (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). As far back as 2000, researchers were already identifying the fact that kids growing up with electronic devices and interactive media are demanding different ways of learning: “[Today’s students] want more hands-on, inquiry based approaches to learning and are less willing to simply absorb what is put before them” (Hay, 2000).
  • Look for built-in adaptive supports that automatically present students with the most relevant and level-appropriate content. These sorts of recommendations systems guide students toward specific learning objectives while still leaving ample freedom of choice.
  • Seek games that support project-based learning where students can create and save their work, such as building a gearbox or a inventing a new species of animal. Your students will repay you by spending vast amounts of time on task outside of school.
  • A learning rewards system is important, but what students can do with the rewards might matter more than the rewards themselves. Check if students can customize the game’s visual environment or their virtual self (avatar), thus increasing their emotional stake in learning.
  • Games can be the victim of their own success when the class period ends abruptly and interrupts problem-solving in mid-process. Because time is a significant constraint at school, games might work best when extended into home settings. Home access also gives parents the opportunity to monitor and encourage their children. In fact, games offer exciting opportunities to bring students, parents, and educators together.
  • Test products with students and solicit their feedback. After all, students know best what will engage them!
  • Lastly, the best way to increase learner engagement is still a caring teacher who creates a culture of learning, shows interest in students’ work, takes the time to understand their individual learning styles, and who respects the integrity of their unique personalities. That said, games are a useful and potentially change-catalyzing tool to have in any educator’s arsenal. They just need to be deployed strategically with the same level of thoughtfulness as other resources.

Ben Grimley is an educational gaming expert, former head and founder of PBS Game and App Publishing, and co-creator of PBS KIDS PLAY!, a game-based learning program for students in pre-kindergarten through first grade. Find him on Twitter @ben_grimley or connect at http://linkedin.com/in/grimley.


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