Can Games Increase Student Success?

Amanda Cunningham
Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 12:45pm

Games are a fun, interactive way to teach students. They can also help encourage students who are otherwise disengaged learners. When students feel a sense of competition and urgency, they become motivated to learn concepts so they can advance further into the game.

To be an effective teaching tool, games need to explain, expand, or reinforce academic concepts or assist players in developing specific skills. The most effective games have defined learning outcomes and help players apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations.

Games should require students to actively participate and use the skills being taught through play. This high-participation level isn’t hard to achieve with young learners today who have grown up playing technology-based games.

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

Both gamification and game-based learning can be effective tools in the classroom. But what’s the difference between them?

Gamification is applying any game elements—like competition, scoring, and rewards—to encourage specific behaviors. Game-based learning is simply learning through games.

Gamification can motivate and refresh the traditional learning experience by turning routine tasks like lesson reviews into fun competitions between students in the class or between one class and another. Any time a teacher assigns points to a student, uses a leaderboard, or distributes badges, he or she is gamifying.

Educators have been using games in the classroom for years. For example, what could be a boring review of the water cycle is turned into a fun game of Jeopardy! like the screenshot below.

An early example of game-based learning is the computer game Oregon Trail. This game was popular among elementary school students worldwide from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, to teach students about the Oregon Trail. Even today, learners enjoy immersing themselves into pioneer life as they travel west during the height of Manifest Destiny.

Readers may remember this as the fun, yet nerve-wracking, game where little Timmy is always breaking his leg or getting dysentery, and players dread river crossings because it results in the  loss of vital supplies. Players learn the value of certain items, skills, and trades while they make the virtual trek across the continent in hopes of arriving safely at the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Oregon Trail was inducted into The Video Game Hall of Fame in 2015 for its legacy of game-based learning and its extreme popularity.

Game-Based Learning Evolution

While there are still games similar to the foundations of the Oregon Trail, game-based learning has advanced like the rest of technology into being more data-focused and analytically grounded.

Today, many games use adaptive learning systems that personalize learning for each student based on his or her needs. Games can now identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in math, reading, science, and language arts—and then assign work to remediate skill gaps and gradually introduce more challenging content with the goal to bring each student up to grade-level proficiency on skills and standards that they will be tested on at the end of the year.

Game-based learning programs—like the award-winning Stride™—are growing in popularity due to their ability to diagnose student weaknesses and prioritize skill building to get all students on pace. The programs provide teachers with valuable data by continuously monitoring students’ progress that can help guide their instructional decision-making in the classroom.

Stride combines game-based learning and gamification for students in pre-K–11th grade. Stride offers variety of game-based learning solutions that are designed to recognize a student’s skill weaknesses during the first session and then provide practice questions, video lessons, and printable lessons for the skills they need the most help on. Stride also uses gamification by rewarding students for correct work with game and academic badges along the way.

Example of teacher dashboard in monitoring student progress.

Educators have long valued the strategy of presenting material in a variety of ways in order to reach students with different abilities and learning styles. Gamification and game-based learning are valuable tools to reach students in unconventional ways and worthy additions to the instructional toolbox. 

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