Expert Viewpoint

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.

I 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 was learning.

Unlike 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.

Game-Based Learning and Motivation

Many 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.

These 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.

When Personalization Goes too Far

Some 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.

Where 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.

Try, Try Again

In 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.

Repeating 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.

When 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.

Winning at Mathematics

Video 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.

My 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 mathematics.

About the Author

Matt Feldmann is the vice president of product at MIND Research Institute, the non-profit organization behind ST Math, 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].