When I was in first grade – back when teachers used chalkboards and ditto machines – playing a game in class was the BEST! In SoCal, it was unusual to have rainy days but when it happened our teacher would have us play Heads-Up, Seven Up during indoor recess. I can remember hoping someone would put my thumb down so that I could guess the mystery person at the end of the round. We would play this game the entire time and groan aloud when recess was over. Playing that game was a welcome break from the months of circle time lessons and worksheets. Did I learn anything from playing Heads-Up? I didn’t think so at the time but looking back with my “teacher eye," there was communication, engagement, and reasoning involved. Of course, I doubt learning those skills was intentional but it taught me two important things when I stepped into my teacher shoes: 1) children will remember the experience of a fun and engaging game, and 2) children can learn concepts and skills, solve problems, think critically, collaborate, follow rules, communicate thinking, etc. while playing a game!
Incorporating games purposefully in the curriculum has proven to have several benefits:
- improves and increases student engagement
- helps to boost critical- and creative-thinking skills
- requires formulating solutions to “advance” to next levels
- strengthens memory retention when game play is repeated
- provides opportunities to cooperate and communicate clearly with others
When games are used to teach a concept and improve the learning outcome, the method is known as Game-Based Learning (GBL). For example, students can play a game in which they each start with $50 and purchase items in a grocery store (using store ads as a reference). The student who comes closest to $50 without going over wins. At the end of the “shopping trip," students compare receipts, explain why certain items were bought, and share what they could have done differently. Learning outcomes include sharpening addition and subtraction skills (whole number, decimal number, or a combination of both), communication and reasoning skills, and recognizing the real-life application of these skills. This type of game can be repeated, modified to decrease/increase the budget to spend, and be turned into a team activity. The added benefit? It’s not a worksheet.
The terms game-based learning and gamification have often been used interchangeably, although there are clear differences. While GBL focuses on learning outcomes, gamification uses elements of a game (points, rewarding badges, leaderboards) in mostly non-game activities. For example, students earn coins for finishing homework assignments on time, and can use the coins to buy items in a class store. Although both GBL and gamification have made an impression on education, GBL is intentionally focused on helping students meet learning goals. But how can this be done in a virtual classroom?
Before we talk about the ‘how’, let’s review a few reasons why GBL is especially important when students are remote learning. Game-based learning --
- can foster class relationships, via team games, which is especially important at the beginning of the school year.
- offers ample opportunity to practice and master skills by having students repeat a level, or levels.
- provides students the time they need to work through a problem, or sets of problems, without the pressure of time.
- gives students immediate feedback on how they’re doing and helps them re-think their strategy for next game play.
- encourages students to persist and persevere through challenging problems which, in turn, creates a sense of accomplishment and builds confidence.
Speaking more on this last point, as with most games, ‘losing a game’ is not seen as a setback. Instead, failing at a game provides an opportunity to keep trying and get better at detecting what needs to be improved to pass a level or ‘win’ the game. I’m not sure about you, but any time I’ve passed a level on a game, my confidence grows and the skills I used to pass a level I apply to the new level. Students will do, and feel, the same.
Besides building and strengthening the four Cs of 21st century learning – collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking – students gain vital skills that can be applied to a variety of situations, including real-life. Before implementing games, think about how games will be used by asking:
- Why will they be used? – to introduce a topic, as practice of newly learned skills, to assess learning, to increase participation
- What type of game makes sense? – role-playing games, puzzle games, short play games
- How will the games be incorporated? – in small groups, whole class, or individually, as review or enrichment, as homework
This takes time and getting to know each student in the class. What are their abilities, learning styles, game-play experiences, and preferences? Depending on the age, how much time will need to be invested to teach and model a game? Which games are most appropriate for the different learning levels in the class? Try sending out a survey via Google Forms with questions about games students like to play and why. This can help you whittle down the games you choose to use from the plethora available online. Discuss the results during a virtual session which will serve at least two purposes – finding out what types of games your students will be most attracted to playing and motivating them to check and complete their assignments if games are incorporated.
One perk of GBL besides boosting learning engagement and motivation, is that games become a means of delivering differentiated instruction to meet the variety of learner in a class. The results of a game can be used as a means of assessing comprehension and needs for improvement, an engaging alternative to traditional quizzes and tests. As you and your students get more accustomed to games as part of their learning experience, students can learn to design games to teach others. As a culminating activity, students can create a game complete with instructions and levels of play. You may need to first create a game as a class (or split the class into two or more groups to better manage virtual sessions) and test its effectiveness in teaching the targeted skills. Take the time to work through this process to avoid frustration and decrease the number of questions that will inevitably pop-up.
Remote learning has its challenges but incorporating games can help alleviate the stress of not being able to nurture class relationships while teaching skills such as creative thinking and collaboration. Depending on the type of game, students can explore content from a different point of view (a character in a story, role-play and apply to real-life situations), repeat levels and rethink strategy as they work towards mastery of a concept, and communicate with others how to advance through a game. This can be done as a whole class and in small groups (synchronously), and individually working at the student’s pace. Besides the payoffs described above, students will remember the experience of the game and, hopefully, how it helped them manage learning in the virtual classroom.