It can be a struggle to hold the attention of a classroom of rowdy students for a prolonged period of time.
Kids can furtively turn their attention from the blackboard to their iPhones — keeping themselves entertained with the endless games and apps at their disposal — forcing teachers to find new and effective ways to keep students engaged.
Many educators, from elementary to university levels, turn to educational games to facilitate learning and engage students. Game-based learning has had an increasingly prominent presence in classrooms since at least the 1980s, with the advent of children’s computer software. Games such as Math Blaster, Carmen Sandiego, and The Oregon Trail have been popular with students in elementary school for nearly three decades.
Game-Based Learning vs. Gamification
Game-based learning is not the same as gamification; the latter refers to the practice of applying the rules and elements of a game to an activity that would otherwise not be a game. For example, teachers can “gamify” test-taking in classrooms by awarding a prize to the top scorer, or dividing the class up into teams.
Gamification relies on rewards or competition to create incentives for students to complete tasks. It’s used not only by educators, but in business as well, rewarding employee contributions and customer loyalty through the use of point systems they can use to get free products or other rewards.
Game-based learning incorporates the fundamentals of an academic subject into a game or activity that students then participate in. This approach enables teachers to personalize their students’ learning experiences by providing different levels of difficulty based on each student’s competence or interests.
Educational games come in non-digital and digital forms, and can be played by an individual or a team at multiple levels. Moreover, many digital games provide immediate feedback as students play, enabling learners to correct and strengthen their skills in real-time and educators to receive feedback as their students are engaging in the activity.
Education expert Marc Prensky has written extensively on the topic of game-based learning. In his article “Computer Games and Learning: Digital Game-Based Learning,” he points out that students today will benefit more from game-based learning than previous generations because technology has been heavily integrated into their daily lives. According to Prensky, “today’s college grads have spent fewer than five thousand hours of their lives reading, but more than ten thousand hours playing video games and another ten on their cell phones.”
In 2014, a study about gender and game-based learning suggested made two conclusions about its participants. First, researchers found that males showed a stronger preference for digital games than females. Second, the study also suggested that the instructional design of the game had the biggest impact on how a given gender performed. Male students benefitted more from competing with others, while female students benefitted from playing games that were more independent.
Game-Based Learning in the Classroom
Nicole Walters, a first grade teacher at P.S./M.S. 3 in the Bronx, N.Y., says that game-based learning is an extremely helpful tool for her students, especially to those in earlier grades, since these students have been exposed to technology from a young age. “It’s easier when they’re younger, especially now that they’re technologically savvy,” Walters said.
Younger students who have grown up in the digital age are more familiar than ever with technology, which may make it challenging for teachers to compete with electronic devices for their students’ attention.
“Kids learn so much better when they’re having fun,” Walters said. “It can be a simple game like a crossword or a complex multiplayer video game, but you want them to be interacting and participating.”
The point of these games is to have students practice what they are learning in class. Walters says that the games have to be meaningful and connected to what the instructor is teaching; otherwise, the skills are not going to stick.
Not for Every Subject or Student
“I don’t think it works for everything. But I think it works for things that are meant to be taught hands on, like math,” Kristina Lubeski, a literacy aid for Branford Public Schools in Connecticut, said. She added that, for subjects such as reading, students have to learn fundamental skills, comprehension, and fluency, “so you don’t really play games with that,” Lubeski said.
“Technology and game-based learning go hand in hand and they work wonderfully together,” Lubeski said. But it’s not a catchall for students or subjects. Sometimes the older, less exciting methods of teaching are better. “It can work for some classes and not others. So you have to know who’s in your class and what works for them.”
Admiraal, W., Huizenga, J., Heemskerk, I., Kuiper, E., Volman, M., & Dam, G. (2014). Gender-Inclusive Game-Based Learning in Secondary Education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1208-1218.
Burke, B. (2014, August 6). How to Gamify Innovation. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from Forbes
Davis, V. (n.d.). A Guide to Game-Based Learning. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from Edutopia
Davis, V. (2014, March 20). Gamification in Education. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from Edutopia
The Gamification of Education Infographic #gamification #edtech. (2012, January 1). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from Knewton
Lubeski, Kristina. Literacy aide for Brandford Public Schools. Phone interview 2/11/15
Prensky, M. (n.d.). Computer Games and Learning: Digital Game-Based Learning. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from Academia.edu
Walters, Nicole. First grade teacher at P.S.M.S. 3. Phone interview 2/11/15