Best Practices and Lessons Learned from Gaming in Education

Following a review of gaming in education, Larson McClarty & al (2012) indicated that well-designed digital games are based on a number of learning principles, for example, they usually provide continuous and repeated practice for improvement with limited consequences for failing; they also provide “the opportunity to think, understand, prepare and execute actions” (p. 8) in simulated environments; they incorporate clear goals and provide immediate constructive feedback which are important characteristics of formative evaluation. From the evidence gathered, they concluded that only modest evidence was found that the skills developed while playing can be transferred to real life situations. However these authors pointed out that: “Skills may be easier to transfer outside of games than specific content” (p. 9).

During the game, well-designed systems gather information on the actions of the players to identify the players’ competencies. The game can then be adapted to the players’ strengths and weaknesses allowing them to move from simple to complex levels: “Other scaffolding can be achieved through the use of graphics, such as navigation maps, which can lower a player’s cognitive load while playing” (Larson McClarty & al., p. 10). Digital games offer a unique learning progression, allowing ample practice time to suit the players’ need, since “digital games inherently force the player to master a concept in order to advance” (Larson McClarty & al., p. 11). Digital games usually provide players with support and choices which promote active learning and players’ engagement; according to Larson McClarty & al. “The most common error in online education activities is a failure to provide the learner with an appropriate level of agency. Agency refers to the learner’s ability to interact with the material and feelings of belongness and socio-emotional support in the situation.” (p. 11).

Larson McClarty & al.’s review of gaming in education revealed that well-designed games provide attainable challenges so that players have to stretch to reach their maximum potential, with some guidance and support. Digital games provide “a state of pleasant frustration–challenging but doable–is an ideal state for learning … similar to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development” (p. 12). In the same way, Green & Bavelier posited that since motivation level is closely linked to the individual’s own belief in his ability to succeed, one of the “principles for learning rules” used in video games is to provide only a small increase in the difficulty level so that the players have to master the new skills and techniques before they are allowed to move on to the next level. Without this principle, mastery of the game would be impossible (Green & Bavelier, 2008).

Green & Bavelier’s analysis of research findings on learning transfer using video game indicate that “when a task was started at a difficult level…learning was slow and specific for the trained orientation and location…When the task was made easier…learning progressed quickly and transferred to novel orientations” (p. 9). This finding supports Vygotsky’s theory which stipulates that “motivation is highest and learning is most efficient when tasks are made just slightly more difficult than can be matched by the individual’s current ability” and provides further evidence to the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes, R.M. & Dodson, 1908) which predicts that “learning is a U-shaped function of arousal level” (Green & Bavelier, 2008, p. 10), meaning that a low level of arousal in skill learning leads to minimum learning while a high level of arousal found in video games will most certainly lead to higher level of learning.

Gamers have ample opportunities to take risks with limited negative consequences and to learn from their mistakes since they receive immediate feedback, which in turn enhances their motivation and their engagement to advance to a more complex level. Larson McClarty & al.’s analysis also revealed that when games are used in education they should be coupled with effective pedagogy “in order for the lessons learned in computer games to transfer to other contexts” (p.13). Larson McClarty & al.’s research indicates that: “Games support many of the components of flow such as clear goals, direct and immediate feedback, balance between ability level and challenge, and sense of control. These components can increase student engagement, and student engagement is strongly associated with student achievement” (Larson McClarty & al., 2012, p. 14).

The added value of the digital gaming environment is that it will “sustain engagement and motivation across time, particularly with more challenging learning tasks” (Larson McClarty & al., p. 13). This finding becomes even more important given that lack of engagement and motivation appears to be the root cause of Canadian school dropouts as shown by the recent data from the Canadian Education Association (2009) on the intellectual engagement of Canadian youths in the school system. Intellectual Engagement for this study was operationalized as: “A serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning, using higher order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge” (Canadian Education Association, 2009, p. 7). The report states that a disproportionate percentage of Canadian students (37%) are not intellectually engaged in the study of important subjects such as mathematics and language arts. Additionally, the findings suggested that: “intellectual engagement decreases steadily and significantly from Grade 6 to Grade 12. The longer students remain in school, the less likely they are to be intellectually engaged” (Canadian Education Association, 2009, p. 31). Larson McClarty & al. (2012), indicated that the gaming experience of youths shapes their expectations of the nature of learning environments.  Therefore it is not surprising that a great number of youths find school boring and that 70% of school dropouts said that they were not motivated or inspired to work hard (Larson McClarty & al., 2012, p. 13). These authors report similar findings from studies performed in Europe and Scotland.

Larson McClarty & al. (2012) summarize the 21st century skills that videogames foster. According to their review, videogames “capture the players’ attention and engage them in complex thinking and problem solving” (p. 16). Their review also identified a number of skills that videogames can measure: “collaboration, innovation, production, and design” (p. 16). Advocates of the use of videogames indicate that, rather than simply reading about hypothetical situations, games provide players with ample opportunities to experience a variety of situations, to think systematically, to analyse relationships, to develop decision-making and problem-solving skills; they also foster “collaboration, problem solving, and procedural thinking” (p. 16). Based on (McFarlane, A., Sparrowhawk, A., & Heald, 2002), Larson McClarty & al. posited that the reason for neglecting the use of videogames in the classroom may be due to the fact that the skills videogames develop “are not currently tested or explicitly valued in educational systems” (p. 17).

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