The Fine Line in Game Based Learning
Games can be powerful learning experiences, as long as adaptive learning doesn’t put an algorithm, rather than the student, in the driver’s seat.
grew up when the original Nintendo Entertainment System was released,
and Super Mario Bros. was one of my favorite games. As I progressed
further through the levels, I remember Mario dying… a lot. I would
get frustrated and may have even taken a break, but I didn’t give
up. I stuck with it because I knew that it was a game and that it
could be beaten by a kid like me. I could also see that the game
stayed the same, but I was getting better at it each time I played. I
my experience with video games, when many students sit down in a math
class they start with the notion that a kid like them can’t master
the content. As educators, there’s a lot we can learn from video
games that can be applied in the classroom. The key is making sure
that the foundation of a game or game-based learning program for the
classroom is built on the same goal: enhancing the learning outcome
of the student.
Learning and Motivation
educators are interested in using games in the classroom to boost
motivation and engagement. When it comes to learning, though, the
lesson from video games is that real learning itself is all the
reward necessary. When I think about the most rewarding learning
experiences I’ve seen or experienced, they happened when a person
persevered to truly learn, not when they customized an avatar, scored
points, or earned a new badge.
types of rewarding learning experiences look a lot like well-designed
video games in which the player needs multiple attempts at each level
before passing it and moving onto the next. What makes games so
motivational is that learning and improvement are required to beat
each subsequent level.
Personalization Goes too Far
ed tech creators have turned to personalized learning algorithms that
use student data to change the student’s experience — for
instance, to give students easier or harder problems, or to change
the type of problem presented based on whether or not the student is
answering questions correctly or incorrectly.
I believe personalization goes too far is when adaptive algorithms
make choices for the student that the student should be allowed to
make for themselves. Imagine if, instead of offering options, Netflix
chose the next show that you had to watch. Autonomy is one of the
pillars of motivation, and well-designed video games respect the
player’s freedom to choose, fail, and choose again. The player, not
an algorithm, decides what and where to go next.
most video games, one of the main choices that players are confronted
with is the choice to either struggle and persist in moments of
challenge or to stop playing. The game doesn’t get easier for the
player if they struggle — it
provides feedback and an opportunity to repeat the level and try
again. The feedback helps the player to revise their strategy for the
next time they get to the same moment in the level.
earlier parts of the level or earlier levels gives players an
opportunity to practice and master component skills that will enable
them to be successful at the point of learning in the game. The
feedback and visibility of further progress in the game provide an
immensely motivating experience because, like me playing Super Mario
Bros., the player sees that they are learning and growing.
games provide scenarios rich with decision-making and immediate
informative feedback, student choices and actions drive the
learning — not
an algorithm. The result is that all students are equipped to reach
the highest levels of achievement, regardless of where they start or
their pace of learning.
games are fine-tuned learning experiences. The challenge of the video
game designer is to build a game that isn’t too hard or too easy.
Too easy, and the game isn’t much fun to play because it doesn’t
require the player to learn. Too hard, and players don’t get enough
informative feedback to allow them to persevere and learn how to
master the game. The goal is to ensure that the player, armed with
the knowledge that the game can be beaten, productively struggles and
receives the support they need so that the player can learn and
master the game.
hope is that not just our entertainment games but also our classroom
learning experiences will grow to look more and more like these types
of experiences, where students productively struggle, are given the
choice to persevere, receive informative feedback, and see that they
are truly learning. If we are more successful in doing this as
educators, our students will believe that a kid like them can master
Feldmann is the vice president of product at MIND Research Institute,
the non-profit organization behind
a PreK-8 spatial temporal math program. Feldmann has a master’s
degree in mathematical behavioral science from the University of
California, Irvine. He can be reached at [email protected].