Dinosaurs! Look out! They’re blocking your path. There’s only one thing to do - pull back on your slingshot and aim carefully…
Does this sound like any math class you’ve been part of? Does this even sound like math?
You load the slingshot with a piece of fruit and look closely at the dinosaurs. You know each dinosaur only likes fruit with certain attributes. If you can feed them the fruit they like, maybe you can get past them.
Attributes? Okay, this is starting to sound a little like math.
There! That dinosaur only likes fruit that’s spherical! As luck would have it, there’s an orange. Ready, aim…
Although it may not sound like your typical math class, students playing this game are learning valuable mathematical skills involving sorting, organizing, and recognizing attributes. Of course, this sounds like a far cry from the regular classroom experience. This is game-based learning in action.
Let’s compare it, for a moment, to what it would be like for a student who is attempting to solve this same problem on a piece of paper.
Does that seem like fun in comparison? Do you think this student would be as engaged as the one who’s feeding dinosaurs? Which of these two presentations do you think would create a memorable learning experience that students could draw from in the future?
So what is game-based learning?
Game-based learning is the practice of using games to teach and learn. Game-based learning games can range from board games to hop scotch; but for this article, I’ll be focusing specifically on video games.
Game-based learning can engage students in a way regular subject matter cannot because games are so good at motivating players to perform tasks in a fun, exciting scenario. Students who usually struggles through a worksheet may find themselves much more invested in a game that teaches the same subject matter.
There is, however, a difference between game-based learning and giving your class a set of iPads loaded up with games. The difference lies in the learning objective. Setting your students loose on games and hoping learning takes place is like throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks.
Game-based learning works best when your students have goals - when they know why they are playing, and what they are working toward. This can be hard sometimes because playing a game in the classroom feels like it should be a ‘just for fun’ affair, and it seems unfair to put a damper on your students’ fun with your lesson plan. But the truth is: a well-designed lesson plan will inspire and engage your students in the subject matter even more.
This is especially true when the game itself isn’t specifically educational, such as Minecraft. When your students understand what is expected of them and the goals they are striving for, they can begin to engage with their learning goals and reflect on their progress along the way.
Why use game-based learning?
How many students do you have in your class? It would be wonderful to be able to help all of them at once, but that is simply not feasible. It is almost impossible to offer feedback, to assess, and to personalize the difficulty of every student’s math experience. The right game, however, can do all that.
Games have the ability to give immediate, direct feedback to the player. When a student answers a question incorrectly on a worksheet, there is no immediate way to know exactly what is wrong with it. Games, however, often give precise visual clues about what is incorrect about a solution.
Got the answer wrong? Why? Oh, there’s too much weight on the balance! This game does a good job of not telling the player exactly what the answer is; instead it points the player in the right direction.
As your students are playing, you may want to know how they’re doing: where they’re struggling, where they’re excelling, and what kind of progress they’ve made. Fortunately, many educational game developers recognize this and provide built-in assessment systems! Assessment systems collate all the students’ actions, their correct and incorrect answers, amount of time played, total progress, etc., and turn that information into easily digestible reports for you to read.
One of the major differences between game-based learning and the traditional class is that game-based learning has the potential to personalize a student’s learning experience. Imagine handing out a worksheet to your students. What portion of your class does that effect the most? The advanced learners will quickly become bored, and students who struggle often become frustrated.
However, personalizing a student’s learning experience is possible with games! Stronger students may find themselves rapidly progressing through the game to more advanced areas, while weaker students may find the game brings in additional scaffolding features to help them out. This personalization is a very powerful tool as it means more of your students can be engaged in meaningful, personalized learning.
Video games? In my classroom?
At this point, you’re likely convinced about the merits of game-based learning. But I realize you may also be having a hard time getting around the idea that your students are going to be playing a videogame during class. Learning how to find the right game for your class is a topic for another blog post. For now, we’ll discuss three reasons why games are exactly the right medium for learning.
- Games can have an amazing breadth of subject matter and mechanics. When you play a game, you may experience anything from a social justice dilemma, to an historical non-fiction simulation, to an outer space action adventure. The kinds of interactions you experience while playing games may be a totally unique experience you wouldn’t encounter in real life, such as being surrounded by a horde of hungry dinosaurs!
- You may be surprised with how much you are learning. After all, one of the most inherently enjoyable features of gaming is learning. Maybe you need to learn about the enemy’s weakness, or how to jump across a chasm. Regardless of what you are learning, a good game will keep you engaged and focused on that task.
- Games and game-based learning give your students the opportunity to experience math in ways that aren’t possible in an analogue environment. A well-designed game offers up learning environments that simply can’t be replicated outside the game world. These opportunities for applied problem solving in novel learning environments have amazing potential.
A great example of this in action:
In this activity from Zorbit’s Math Adventure, students need to scoop out just the right amount of ice cream for this little squid. Sometimes the squid will ask for lengths and widths, or it might ask for area. One of the novel aspects of this activity is that the game space dynamically changes over time, forcing players to reflect and readjust their strategy as they play.
I hope I’ve given you a better understanding of the potential of game-based learning and how videogames can be an effective learning tool.
Are you currently using game-based learning in your classroom? Tell us about your experiences in the comments - both good and bad!
Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.