Teaching Tip: Games in the Classroom

“Gamification” is one of education’s latest buzzwords, but trying to figure out whether or not games would enhance your curriculum, and if so how to incorporate them, can be rather daunting. MIT has released a whitepaper outlining the uses of games in education (and someone created an infographic of its major points), and the arguments are intriguing. Most importantly, games promote student engagement with the material and active learning. They are creating products, applying concepts, and (hopefully) enjoying the process because they know what they need to do to succeed.

The possibilities for using games in your courses are diverse in scope and level of preparation required. There’s the common review session Jeopardy or Pictionary, immersive games and activities that last a couple of class meetings, even entire courses designed as RPGs. If you are interested in using existing games in your courses, it is fairly easy to find short ones (e.g. a simple browser search for “psychology games” yields Psychology Today’s Top 13 Online Games and a game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma), but in evaluating the quality of a game, deciding how to incorporate it into your course, or in designing your own games, there are a few things to consider:

Allowing for failure without consequences A key feature of games, whether board games, video games, or MMOs (massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online), is that if you fail, you can try again. And again. And again. And again until you successfully complete the task. In a course, this would mean allowing students to resubmit an assignment until they achieve the scores they want. In his course designed as an RPG, Gerol Petruzella did this using Canvas’s Quiz feature. Students could resubmit quizzes as many times as they wanted, whether it was to achieve a passing grade or simply a higher one. He discusses the advantages and disadvantages of this in his webinar Incorporating Gaming in Online Learning. Setting up your assignments in this way allows students to learn from their mistakes, improving mastery of course material.

Using XP instead of grades – The difference between XP and grades is subtle but important. Using experience points instead of grades allows students to build up their scores to achieve the grades they want. In his book The Multiplayer Classroom, Lee Sheldon writes about designing entire courses as RPGs and has found that using XP causes a mental shift in students. They feel that rather than being penalized, they are earning XP so that they don’t “lose” an A, they raise their grade from an F. Students are thus less likely to give up on a course even if they don’t earn the XP they were hoping for on initial assignments. You can see Lee Sheldon’s XP grading scheme here. Even with a short-term assignment, using XP can be beneficial, and it is fairly easy to translate XP to grades for your gradebook.

Students vs. Students or Students vs. Course – Particularly when grading curves are involved, students often feel as though they have to compete against each other to earn high grades. Having competitive games in your courses can worsen this, so that many students do not enjoy the activity, while others become focused on winning instead of learning. Successful strategies for relieving that pressure include:

  • Using games that are not overtly competitive (e.g. “races” to complete the assignment fastest, scavenger hunts, grades assigned based on a ranking system)
  • Using rubrics for grading so that students know exactly what they need to do to earn the XP/grades they want
  • Group projects (often framed as “guilds” in RPG courses)
  • Rewards based on class success rather than individual success (e.g. if half of the class scores above a threshold on an assignment, you’ll have class outside)

These strategies shift the focus from doing better than classmates to mastering the course material, since mastering the material is the game objective. Students end up enjoying the process more and learning more if the games aren’t competitive..

If you are interested in learning more about the subject, Penny Arcade’s series Extra Credits offers tips on incorporating games into your courses from the perspective of professional game designers:

This is also a popular topic over at Prof Hacker. They have a series on Games in the Classroom (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) as well as interesting insights into playing to learn.

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