The Case for Game-Based Learning

Thursday, March 3, 2016 -- Scott Sterling

Student engagement is often the first thing noted when it comes to the adoption of game-based learning. The statistic of 74 percent of teachers reporting that they use games in their curriculum makes it clear that keeping students busy is only one benefit.

Perhaps the leading researcher into the efficacy of games in the classroom, James Paul Gee from Arizona State University with his report, “Learning and Games,” forms the basis of much of the thought surrounding the educational benefits of games. With this and other studies, Gee has maintained a focus on digital literacy and learning. Let's examine some of Gee's findings and make a case for how games can enhance learning.

The Importance of Episodic Memory

Neuroscience is beginning to reveal that episodic memories—those which come from experiences and events—are more effective in thinking and learning than short-term memories such as rote memorization or other “traditional” activities that might occur in a classroom. Gee argues that games can provide those experiences for long-term memory storage and utilization.

Games provide experience in two phases. The first is the act of playing the game itself. That provides context for the learning based on where the student was, what they did, etc. But games also provide higher-order tasks, such as working toward specific goals and the receipt of immediate feedback, which offer deeper context.

A Prospective Workflow

Let’s see an example of what a game may look like in class and how that experience ties into episodic memory:

A student sits down with his or her device to play a teacher-approved, subject-aligned game. Later, the student can recall when a new skill was first presented. You can often hear something from the student like, “I remember when the game showed me how to do that!”

Every game has a goal (otherwise, there is no “winning”). Working toward the goal exercises problem solving, as players have to find the most effective and efficient way to accomplish the goal.

If students struggle, they are receiving immediate feedback. Even younger students can understand when they are not making progress in the context of playing a game. That isn’t always the case in other classroom activities.

Many games are now played in a collaborative way. Even if that isn’t the case for a particular game, students still tend to share their experiences about the game with each other. It’s even better if they have to teach their fellow students how to accomplish the game’s goal.

So, let’s stop looking at game-based learning as a time filler to be used when there are some minutes to kill at the end of class. It looks as if its benefits go much deeper than that.

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