Research is verifying what many teachers know: Well-designed digital games in the classroom increase student engagement, learning and retention. They improve students’ on-task time and even their social and emotional well-being. The benefits are especially significant when high-quality games are integrated into a curriculum over multiple lessons. So how can we put this knowledge to use as our new school year begins?
As a science teacher of students in grades seven to 12, I look for well-designed games to teach common core and the Next Generation Science Standards. Being well-designed means that the games are fun to play, teach important content through engaging game mechanics and are based on learning theory. The player should feel challenged to solve interesting and relevant problems with newly-gained understanding. There should be multiple ways to progress through the game and win. Frequent experimentation and failure — yes, failure! — in the game should be encouraged and result in a pleasant frustration that drives the player to try new strategies until challenges are mastered. If it’s a really high-quality game students will keep playing it on their own, and keep learning, even after they leave my classroom.
Games that teach 21st-century skills and systems thinking are most valuable since they prepare students for future learning and careers. I have little use for the all-too-common digital “games” that drill students on low-level memorization, which has minimal value in preparing students for the future. Even if simple recall was my goal, which it is not, my students see right through poorly-designed learning games and perceive them as boring digital worksheets with token rewards. Most of my students are not afraid to let me know when teachers refer to an activity as a game, but it doesn’t meet students’ requirements to really be considered a game.
In our era of standardized testing and accountability, curriculum demands on teachers are intense. Few teachers have time to add one more thing into the curriculum. Some of my colleagues feel game-playing in the classroom takes too much time away from important curriculum requirements. I’ve even had a few students who excel in traditional school environments tell me that real games don’t belong in school because games are fun and school isn’t supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be hard work. That sentiment deeply troubles me. Rather than participate in an institution that has indoctrinated the “good” students with a message that prioritizes grit to plow through a shopping-list of boring content, it would be vastly preferable to stoke students’ passion to pursue their interests and find enjoyment in learning. Don’t we always talk about creating lifelong learners? Wouldn’t it be great if kids had the same passion for school as they do for the commercial video games to which they enthusiastically give so much of their time and talent?
As teachers, there are ways we can incorporate well-designed educational games into our existing curricular goals with minimal extra efforts. Research-based learning games aligned to the standards we are already addressing are emerging as fun, effective teaching tools. Here are some tools I’ve used with students:
- PLEx Life Science. It pairs a half-dozen online games on cells, heredity, plant growth, biodiversity, human physiology and pathogens with a month of standards-based life science curriculum.
- Code.org’s Hour of Code initiative. I used this with my middle-school students last year. I used many parts of the free coding curriculum from the site in my classes, and several students now independently are learning programming languages via MOOCs since my school does not offer classes in coding.
- EcoMUVE and Radix Endeavor are rich, multi-user virtual learning environments. They offer teams of students opportunities to run experiments, gather and analyze ecosystem data, form hypotheses and communicate scientific results.
As you head back into your classroom for a new year, I challenge you to incorporate some high-quality educational games into your teaching in a meaningful way. Your students will thank you for it, and they’ll be better prepared for the future.
Michele L. Huppert is a national board certified physics and earth science teacher at Spring Valley Middle-High School in Wisconsin and a National Geographic Society Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. She has participated in several NSF Research Experience for Teachers programs, most recently as a Teacher Fellow with Filament Games in Madison, Wis.
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