UKEdMag: How to Level-Up any Lesson with Game Mechanics, by @MartinGSaunders

Extract from UKEdMag, March 2014 issue. Written by Dr Martin Saunders

With the advent of the new national curriculum and its new emphasis on computing there has never been so much focus on technology in the classroom. In particular there has been a huge surge in tools to teach coding. These include a variety of visual programming products, of which Scratch from MIT is the granddaddy. A number of other providers have developed tools that are more focussed on learning the broader curriculum and these generally use game mechanics of some form to accomplish this.

GameMechanics1The first thing that I think is really interesting about many of the computer based teaching and learning tools out there is that they consistently improve pupil progress. A number of studies have been carried out with varying degrees of rigour but the impact is seen across age, gender, pupil-premium status and for all subjects and ages. A lot of this can be ascribed to the various facets of the products, and certainly there are differences between the various tools, but to some extent just playing a digital game has an impact on a learner’s engagement, attention and ultimately the amount of learning achieved. Across all sorts of games, digital or not, there are a number of features that stand out. These game mechanics can be harnessed in the classroom either using these kinds of digital products or in the way regular lesson activities are planned.

Not to easy, not too hard

[pullquote]For a game to be engaging is has to present the correct degree of challenge[/pullquote]For a game to be engaging is has to present the correct degree of challenge. Casual games including various avian flight plans have this perfected. Good casual games are very simple to start to play but devilishly difficult to master. People don’t like to fail so in order to get someone to even try something you have to remove the fear of failure they may have. Once they have started though they will very quickly get bored if a game is too easy or if it gets too difficult too quickly so pace is important. Equally, as a game player gains more experience they will start to learn how to beat the game so incremental challenge is important for player retention.

This translates to a generally simple process that is either open ended or steadily increases in difficulty over time or progress. In a lesson activity it is important to set the level and gradient of challenge effectively or you will lose less confident individuals at the start and more able individuals as they “beat the game”.

A great classroom example I saw recently was a KS2 lesson on complex sentences where a simple sentence was progressively improved by rolling a die to select a change to be made such as adding an adverb or improving an adjective. The simple mechanic was easily accessible by all pupils but the more-able could really stretch themselves and ended up with some fantastic results.

A sense of achievement

An almost ubiquitous feature of games is a reward system where overcoming the challenges of the game results in a tangible bonus, badge, level or similar. As we go about our everyday business a sense of purpose is important to motivate us. In a game situation this is absolutely distilled and getting one more level or aiming for the highest score yet can be very compelling.

Rewards are used very thoroughly in classrooms and many behaviour management systems for example use this concept to great effect. At my school we use a levelled wall chart where pupils start on green each day and go up or down depending on behaviour. Getting to gold gains a physical reward, getting to red gets a reprimand or whatever is appropriate. This simple process is amazingly effective and you can almost feel the pride radiating from the children when they give a good answer or show good behaviour and are asked to move their star / rocket / rock-star up. Taking the behaviour management a step further there are a couple of digital reward systems which do exactly this but in a more central and coordinated fashion.

The will to win

Another mechanic that is seen in virtually all games is the ability to win somehow. Winning implies some form of adversary and this is sometimes the case literally but often it is the game that will be beaten. There is nothing like the scent of victory to motivate someone and the satisfaction that comes with overcoming an obstacle or difficulty is lasting and meaningful.

[pullquote]This activity teaches the idea that computers simply follow instructions[/pullquote]One of my favourite examples of an activity where pupils try to beat the game is the Jam Sandwich Robot activity I learned of from teacher Phil Bagge. This activity teaches the idea that computers simply follow instructions, AKA algorithms, as given and challenges pupils to write instructions for a jam sandwich-making robot to follow. Inevitably pupils miss vital steps and jam-covered hilarity ensues. Over a few iterations though it is the desire to beat the robot and actually end up with a jam sandwich that brings focus to the detail needed by a dumb machine.

To see direct competition in action in a classroom all you need to do is utter the immortal words, “Boys vs Girls”, or maybe “This Side vs That Side”, and see the scramble to compete and the desire to win. Unfortunately when there is direct competition between people someone winning means someone loses so this obviously has to be handled carefully so as to not demotivate the non-winners (lets not call them losers). One way to do this is to makes sure that everyone “wins” often enough to feel a sense of achievement enough that the losses are forgotten.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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