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How quest-based learning is improving student achievement

There is a common imperative given to teachers to leave no child behind. This alludes to getting all of our students to similar levels of proficiency by year’s end. But in a system that relies on a traditional linear grade book approach to learning, is ensuring that no child be left behind actually keeping them from accelerating their education? According to proponents of quest-based learning, the answer is yes.

Quest-based learning — QBL — is an instructional theory that relies on elements of game design in learning communities to support student choice within the context of a standards-based curriculum. Moving away from a top-down approach to informational acquisition, quest-based learning offers new possibilities for learning and knowledge construction. In Understanding Quest-Based Learning, a white paper by Chris Haskell, a leading games professor at Boise State University notes, “Quest-based learning design focuses on an individualized and flexible curricular experience. In QBL, students can select activities, called quests, rather than assignments in a fixed linear order.” Haskell goes on to explain that, “Students leverage choice to promote engagement rather than waiting for a due date.”

But would allowing students such autonomy over what and when to learn really promote academic achievement and mastery of content standards? Haskell and a colleague from the Department of Educational Technology at BSU designed and implemented an experimental quest-based learning management platform just to find out. Having taken a curriculum built in modules, and converting the content into quests, Haskell began using this approach with pre-service teacher candidates in 2010.

The results were astounding. As reported in the white paper mentioned above, “93% of students using this approach reached the winning condition, described as receiving a course grade of ‘A’ . . . the average completion time was reduced from 16 weeks to 12 ½ weeks with one student completing [the course] in just four.”

Inherent in the system is an attitude and mindset towards students creating their own paths through their learning experience, connecting with each other to complete content-based quests, and constructing new knowledge in a meaningful context. Interestingly, “Despite being able to walk away from the class once they had completed the requirements (2,000 experience points + a completed portfolio), students continued playing through the curriculum, demonstrating persistence in learning.”

While it may be tempting to rationalize such data as the result of students participating in trivial learning tasks disconnected from content standards, the reality of the instructional design is quite to the contrary. The quests in Haskell’s model are tied to standards which are tracked and documented in the user interface of his learning management platform. As students determine which quests to complete and submit them in return for earning experience points, Haskell reviews each submission and either approves the quest or returns it to students to revise and resubmit. What he doesn’t do is penalize students for failed initial attempts at mastering course content.

As quest-based learning continues to move from university courses like Haskell’s down to the K-12 level, there are key insights of which we should all take note. Research shows that students do more work on average using QBL, they receive higher grades overall when compared to traditional courses, and such courses are being completed by students in less time than those with a more linear design. In quest-based learning, students aren’t being left behind, failed instructional designs are instead.

Dave Guymon is an online educator, blogger and educational technology advocate from Idaho Falls, Idaho. He is also a contributing blogger for Edutopia and GettingSmart. Connect with Dave on Twitter @DaveGuymon. You can also find Dave’s book, If You Can’t Fail, It Doesn’t Count on in paperback and Kindle e-book versions.