Perspectives on Learning Games and Engagement

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 29, 2014

Dr. Kari Stubbs from BrainPOP shares her views on the benefits of using learning games to engage students. Dr. Stubbs will be speaking at the 2014 WISE Summit
Having taught 11 years in the classroom, I know first-hand that student engagement is at the core of learning. The ultimate challenge for a teacher is to engage a classroom filled with a variety of learning styles and aptitudes. Success hinges on having a diverse toolbox of teaching tools and strategies that make learning relevant and meaningful.
Online games in particular seemed to capture the heart and minds of my students. Games offered an instant-feedback loop on a naturally personalized scale. They provided an atmosphere where risk-taking was not only safe, but encouraged. We used them to reinforce learning, pique interest in new topics, and as a novel tool for assessment.
As a lifelong teacher and learner, I’ve had many opportunities to engage student learning via the games. Most memorable was the opportunity to play games during a lesson on ratios with a group of students in Malaysia. We began with a short animated movie from BrainPOP – the company for whom I now work – on ratios. We then headed to BrainPOP’s learning games portal – GameUp – and jumped together into the math game “Lure of the Labyrinth: Employee Cafeteria” (from MIT Education Arcade in partnership with Maryland Public Television).  It was a collaborative problem-solving exercise that relied on the use of guess-and-check to untangle the rules of the game and apply content understanding of the principles of ratios. Students experienced personal “light bulb” moments of understanding in an atmosphere where failing was part of the road to mastery. At the end of the lesson, students were visibly highly engaged, repeatedly asking to play again.
Research backs up the empirical evidence.  Since 2003, Project Tomorrow’s SpeakUp survey has captured more than 3.4 million perspectives on the use of technology for learning. Increasingly, its questions have focused on game-based learning. BrainPOP sponsored the survey in 2013, and its results underscored what I’d seen in person. It showed that the frequency of game play for learning has increased significantly the past few years. Since 2007, the percentage of K-3 students leveraging games for learning has increased from 60 to 68 percent; for grades 3-5 from 47 to 60 percent; for grades 6-8 +8 percent; and for high students, 7 percent. Students gave high marks to games that helped them understand difficult concepts; learn more about a given subject; and generally engage them in learning. They added that games make it easier for them to learn (57 percent); increase learning (49 percent); and help them become better thinkers and problem solvers (44 percent). More than half stated that learning games simply make school more fun.
The same survey also captured teacher perspectives, and 74 percent reported that they saw an increase in student engagement through games. They noted that learning games help them address different learning styles (63 percent); reinforce comprehension (49 percent); differentiate instruction (48 percent); and provide an opportunity to practice skills (46 percent).
BrainPOP also partnered with The Joan Ganz Cooney Center to release new research from the Games and Learning Publishing Council initiative about teaching with games. The research included a national survey, Teacher Attitudes about Digital Games in the Classroom, as well as a series of case-studies highlighting individual teachers who integrate digital games into their curriculum. This video case study features Lisa Parisi, a 4th-grade teacher in New Hyde Park, NY, who leverages games to engage her students in challenging math and science content, as well as promote self-directed and project-based learning. The overall research findings echoed the growing popularity of games among teachers as a valid method for engaging student learning. Of the 500 teachers surveyed, over 60 percent shared that games helped increase engagement with subject-area content among lower-performing students. 62 percent reported that games make it easier for them to level lessons and effectively teach the range of learners in their classrooms.
I’m proud of the fact that BrainPOP recognized the power of learning games early on. They work because they provide an interactive setting in which students can apply understanding and mastery. They inherently require engagement, risk taking, and decision making. They help build a variety of higher-order thinking skills like collaboration, problem solving, and systematic thinking. They enhance comprehension and can provide novel opportunities for assessment. But we found that many teachers who wanted to start bringing games into their curriculum weren’t sure how to go about it. So as part of our commitment to supporting educators, we launched GameUp, a free online games portal.
Today, GameUp offers more than a hundred cross-curricular games from leading game publishers. They’re paired with lesson plans and an array of teaching resources that help educators adjust their pedagogy and successfully implement game-based learning. More evidence that games are the wave of the education future? Last year, GameUp saw 2 million hours of play.