How to Roll Out Game-Based Learning—and Boost Engagement—in Your Classroom

Game-Based Learning

How to Roll Out Game-Based Learning—and Boost Engagement—in Your Classroom

from Legends of Learning

By Aryah Fradkin     Apr 3, 2017

How to Roll Out Game-Based Learning—and Boost Engagement—in Your Classroom

During the six years that I taught U.S. History in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was always looking for new ways to engage my students. When Vadim Polikov—my childhood friend and a successful entrepreneur—approached me with a game-based learning business idea in the summer of 2015, I jumped at the idea.

Vadim wanted to create enough curriculum games so they would be effective daily learning tools in schools. I had one big question: Would using games as a primary learning tool actually improve my students’ performance? We embarked on research that not only answered my question, but also provided the genesis of our education start-up Legends of Learning. This spring we are launching 900 middle school science games on our content platform.

How We Did It

We took our question to Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, whose research team worked with us to produce a controlled study that would conclusively report whether game based-learning increased student achievement. I joined a cohort of 13 eighth grade teachers, representing 1,000 students participating in the research study. We came from diverse school districts—urban, suburban, and rural—spanning several states. I stepped out of my traditional teacher role, serving also as a coaching facilitator.

One of our biggest challenges was integrating the games into eighth grade curriculum lessons about Jacksonian Democracy. Teachers usually plan out every detail of a lesson to ensure students master the learning objective for that day. Leaving a significant portion of this responsibility to game play caused no small amount of anxiety, but also excitement.

In order to determine the games’ impact on student achievement, the teachers each had two classes learning the same material. One class became the experimental or “games” group, and the other the control or “regular instruction” group. The first group played games in the classroom at least 50% of the time during the three week unit on Jacksonian Democracy. The control group did not receive any game time and simply learned with standard instructional methods.

Student Engagement

The students’ reactions to game play were remarkably consistent across classrooms and teachers. They shared enjoyment in playing many of the games, and most students improved in their comprehension, recall, and ability to apply learning objectives to real-world contexts.

A noticeable difference between classes using the games and classes reliant upon traditional instruction was the work students produced for projects. In my two classes, students presented skits based on what they had learned about the election of 1824. My game-playing students were enthusiastic about the project, taking on voices of period characters and just downright having fun. But students in the class taught using my traditional instructional methods didn’t see the 1824 election as a fun topic; they were not particularly enthused about acting it out. They also struggled to remember their parts, demonstrating they didn’t possess the factual recall of the game-based group. The other teachers reported similar feedback.

Students using the games also exhibited a greater level of sophistication in their work than traditional instruction-only students. For example, games group students composed raps and poems including subtle details about betrayals committed by Jackson’s adversaries and used a variety of words to describe his character. The control group’s poems and raps were a much simpler overview of basic facts that did not demonstrate such nuance. Vanderbilt’s research confirmed these anecdotal observations, finding that students in the games group provided more detailed answers to the complex questions found at the end of unit exams.

I had always hoped the games would increase engagement in the curriculum, but I had had some doubts. Those doubts were put solidly to rest when exit surveys showed student engagement levels spiked. All teachers reported student engagement in the games group was either high at 42% or very high at 58%. In the control group, 58% of teachers reported average or low engagement.

Full size image here. Source: Substantial Integration of Typical Educational Games into Extended Curriculum, by Legends of Learning and Vanderbilt University.

The Hero of Middle School

My teaching approach changed as a result of the pilot. Traditionally, I controlled the way I presented information to my students by leading most activities, including introducing new material and even reading with them through passages of text. During the pilot I switched to introducing curriculum content purely through the games, largely as a test of efficacy and to satisfy my curiosity.

Many of the teachers described the games as “transformative.” For example, several teachers reported students engaging in organic conversation during games play. While playing a game on the nullification crisis, for example, students were overheard saying, “Being a farmer was crazy in the 1820s. How could you afford to live when the price of crops keeps changing?”

Tama Nunnelley, a middle school social studies teacher in Alabama’s Guntersville Middle School, says, “I can’t think of anything more boring than Andrew Jackson.” She adds, “It didn’t matter because Andrew Jackson is now the Hero of Middle School. My students were so incredibly engaged because of the games.”

Some of the most engaged students across the study were often ones that had been previously afraid to speak up in class. Teachers spent more time walking around the classroom, observing and listening to students, which allowed them to step in whenever guidance was needed. They noted that the learning experience could flow more freely if students, rather than teachers, drove the conversation. The flexible game form met students wherever they were academically.

An Unanticipated Bonus

The pilot had another, unanticipated benefit—professional learning. As the teachers implemented the games in their classes, they communicated by email and phone about lesson strategies and student reactions to games. This led to an increase in confidence and comfort in taking risks with their lesson planning, allowing them to embrace games fully. We noticed the value of teacher interaction and feedback and committed to creating an ambassador community for Legends of Learning, one that we know will be critical to building an effective new education tool for teachers.

Educators who claimed the greatest success during the pilot also communicated with their students on an ongoing basis through classroom chats or one-on-one conversations. Many of the teachers informally polled their students throughout the pilot and used the feedback to adjust their lessons to the classroom's preferences.

The pilot was a meaningful and effective experience, and it’s one I hope other teachers will learn from and use. If you’re itching to get started with your own pilot experience, here are a few helpful hints to keep in mind:

  • Test for the experience, nothing more. If you believe you already know the outcome, it taints the process and can impact the results as well.
  • Don’t limit your horizons to your school. Find out what teachers in other states are doing, and share experiences. Check out our list of 31 game-based learning resources for educators.
  • Have fun! Learning is about exploration and wonder. Students will come along for the ride if they see your enthusiasm.

Our pilot demonstrated that game-based learning that is aligned to the curriculum should play an increasingly significant role in the classroom, becoming a staple blended learning technique. I can’t wait to see what new ideas are around the corner. We all grow and help our students when we try new things in the classroom and share our results.

Five Tips for Implementing Game Based Learning in Your Classroom

  1. Badges—Students love getting badges for mastering different concepts or achieving different levels in a game. Give badges for growth and mastery and keep all your students engaged.
  2. Leaderboards—Nothing gets students more excited than seeing how their peers are doing and trying to match them. A real-time leaderboard can make your classroom even more engaging and fun.
  3. Multi-player action—What’s better than beating a game? Beating your friends at a game, of course! Multi-player action creates an organic feeling of competition in your room that ratchets up engagement and learning.
  4. Student Centered Spaces—Gaming is not a traditional learning method; changing your classroom to accommodate the medium helps facilitate a better learning experience.
  5. Game Narrative—If students are building games, establish a clear theme. Make sure students have the end goal in mind as they develop their games.
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