After reading Setting Students Minds on Fire and A New Culture of Learning, I reflected on my own experiences with gaming and how those principles could be translated into classroom learning. As a gamer, I tend to play either simulation games (The Sims) or peaceful-ish quest games (Pokemon, Mario,etc.). Several principles of game-learning from these games can apply easily to classrooms and improve learning and retention.
First is the way a game begins. Most games start with a little background, often in the form of a cut-scene, on why you are about to start the quest/mission. I like to be immersed in a good story, and an interesting introduction is important for setting up that story. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, if you ask any student why they are taking that class, most will just say “Because it is required for my major”. As far as motivation to finish the game, that’s pretty weak. Often, majors come with a list of required courses, but no explanation as to why those courses are necessary. I’m still not sure why I had to take an Economics course as a Soil Science major. Instructors can always see the majors of their students on the class roster, and can use the gaming strategy to start the course with a little background on what the goal is, and how accomplishing that goal can be beneficial to all players. If students can see how the objectives of the course can help them in their own long term goals, they will have a better motivation than a GPA or a piece of paper to work hard and learn the material.
Once a game has established the quest, the players have to figure out how to accomplish it. Many games have the major quest broken down into manageable pieces, and often use an expanding world system. For example, with Pokemon games, you start of in one small town, then the quest takes you to another town. After you accomplish the mini-quests there, you go on to another city, increasing your skills and the available resources as you go. Sometimes the quest takes you back to towns you’ve already visited, and sometimes you go back on your own to try to collect different types of pokemon that you may have missed. In classroom settings, some of this is already employed. A lot of lectures build on previous knowledge, and often a topic will get brought up multiples times in order to give context. However, many classrooms don’t do well with the manageable mini-quests. How many courses have you taken where most of your grade came from 1 or 2 midterms and a final? This model gives rise to the binge and purge for knowledge and very low retention. Very few games have only 1 or 2 boss battles. That would be stressful and not nearly as much fun. It would not allow players to build up their skills in an engaging manner, and most players would not stick with the game for very long.
I think the principle that most desperately needs to be brought into classrooms is the outcome of failure in games. For most classrooms, when students do poorly on a test, or don’t understand a concept, they just get a bad grade and move on to the next concept. This model does not facilitate good learning, and can be extremely detrimental to students who struggle with an early concept that later parts of the course are based on. Whereas in a game like Pokemon, if you lose a battle, you don’t get to fail and move on. You are transported to the last town you were in, and your pokemon are healed. The worst consequence is that you lose a little in-game currency. But then you try again. Sometimes you spend a little time trying to level your pokemon up, or switch out your pokemon to try a new strategy, but then you face the gym leader again, and again, until you win. You don’t get thrown onto the next, harder quest, until your are strong enough to finish the current quest. The ability to try again and again without major consequences makes players more willing to take on a challenging game. This could easily be translated into the classroom. With writing assignments, an instructor could allow for multiple drafts. On other assessments (quizzes, tests, homework), an instructor could allow students to redo the assignment in some way that allows the student to grasp the concepts they had struggled with.
I argue that this last principle needs to so desperately come into classrooms based off my own experiences as an instructor. I have seen students, used to getting high grades, become so terrified of ruining their GPA, that the focus becomes entirely on the grade than the material. I’ve had students on writing assignments hound me with questions so relentlessly about so many minute things, it felt as though I may as well have written the assignment for them. These students were so worried about getting docked points for messing up that they were totally unwilling to take any initiative for themselves. I recognize that the more opportunities for re-doing assignments there are, the more work there is for instructors. However, I think a balance can be found that enables student learning with out paralyzing fear of failure and allows instructors to get the work done. The inordinately high level of grade stress is probably responsible for a lot of burn out and perhaps one of the reasons so many students who start college degrees do not finish them.