Gaming in the classroom

It’s November now and our team has been spending a lot of time in classrooms all over our district.  One consistent trend has emerged in our district and in the EdTech field as a whole - gamifying the learning.  We aren’t referring to gamifying the entire process of learning but rather using websites for skill building that reward students with a game feature or websites where the skill building is embedded within the context of the game.

In some examples you see numbers for math facts flying around the screen and students have to quickly capture the numbers that sum to a given result.  In other examples, you see blocks of text with definitions and terms floating around and students must match complementary cards together to receive a point.  

Many teachers love these programs and emphasize the following positive points:  
  • The kids love it!  The kids are engaged!
  • The kids get immediate feedback.
  • The games autoadjust for the kids’ skill level and ability

These attributes may all be true, but in order for these activities to have a true impact on the students’ learning, a little more planning and thinking must be done:

Does the engagement in the game take away from the students’ focus on the learning?
When the timer is running and students hope to beat their previous score, are the students playing the game arbitrarily or are they really thinking through the process?  When we are in classrooms we’ve observed a lot of focus on beating the game at the consequence of the students thinking about their thinking.  

Is the feedback worth anything if the students don’t apply it?
Yes, the games give immediate feedback because students fail to go to the next level or earn a point.  We argue, however, if the student is unable to take that feedback and apply it to her learning process, the feedback is not valuable.  If the feedback is a nasty buzzer but doesn’t allow the student to think metacognitively about what went wrong in her learning, then the feedback doesn’t matter.

Does the teacher know what the students know?
Yes, the game may auto adjust to the student’s ability, but if that data never gets back to the teacher, then is this an instructionally-valuable activity for that child?  Or, if the activity doesn’t require the student to log in or the website doesn’t track progress (many free website versions don’t) for the teacher, then what’s the value?  The teacher must know what the students know in order to make an instructional decision.  If your student is stuck below standard, there’s a scaffold to be provided.  If your student is working beyond the standard, this drill-type game likely isn’t the best use of the student’s time.

In the end, these games can probably enhance learning when used strategically in moderation.  Creating a habit of spending 20 minutes per day on a game where neither students nor teachers use the information to make instructional decisions, however, is not ideal.   


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