Video Games, Metacognition, and Learning: Lessons for Your Classroom

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership October 22, 2014

For many people, the image of teenagers clutching game controllers and staring at screens is troubling. However, it is not necessarily the fact that young people fill their idle time with playful entertainment that concerns adults. Instead, there is something disconcerting about the amount of focused energy that players dedicate to understanding and mastering the world of the game; it feels like valuable intellectual resources are being misallocated. Gaming is not passive. It involves active participation in unique virtual worlds full of complex rules. Playing video games involves a lot of learning. 

Modern research increasingly confirms that video-game learning and classroom learning work in the same ways. Like gamers, students who excel are more adept at identifying and analyzing what they don’t know. Both activities require participants to possess the metacognitive skills needed to recognize weaknesses in their own thinking. Through self-reflection, they identify errors and adjust accordingly in order to address their shortcomings with deliberate practice. In the jargon of game-based learning, we call this “iteration.”

In July 2007, K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely wrote a short article for The Harvard Business Review entitled “The Making of an Expert.” This article drove tons of curious people to look at research which “shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate skill.” The work has been remarkably influential. Malcolm Gladwell relied on it as the foundation of his 2008 bestseller Outliers. In that book, Gladwell discussed the 10,000-hour rule: that expertise is a product of practice. This may, in fact, be true, at least according to Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely. But Gladwell’s account glosses over the idea that those 10,000 hours of practice need to be deliberate, metacognitive, and iterative. 

The trouble with the popular understanding of the 10,000-hour rule is that it gives us the impression that mind-numbing repetition leads to success. An argument could be made that this oversimplification has even led to the buzzword-heavy misconception that grit, optimism, and perseverance are the only ingredients in a recipe for academic success. Although it purports to be revolutionary, this “hidden power of character” way of thinking–when taken out of context–is actually very much in line with a pedagogy that many educators call “drill & kill.” Drill for practice. Kill any intrinsic motivation. 

Any parent who has watched a child learn to play the popular video game Minecraft has seen just how important intrinsic motivation is to learning. Parents observe the way it drives deliberate practice. These Generation Blockhead children will play Minecraft for hours, researching their craft through YouTube videos, and crowdsourcing strategies on Internet discussion forums. 

On the contrary, any teacher with classroom experience knows that an extrinsically motivated student’s ability to tolerate and persevere despite doldrums of boredom may correlate to academic achievement measured by test scores, but has nothing to do with long-term success. This is why people speak informally about the difference between “book smart” and “street smart”. Generally, they mean that those who are book smart have memorization skills, while those who are street smart have “real-life” problem-solving skills. One might extrapolate the analogy a bit further, arguing that the distinction between book smart and street smart is grounded in an intuitive understanding of metacognition. 

Metacognition, put very simply, describes one’s ability to think about one’s own thinking. For our purposes, it might be described as the ability to self-evaluate a thought process or an intellectual skill and iterate and improve based on an analysis of strengths and weaknesses. 

For learners, strong metacognitive functions lead to an individual’s ability to identify problem areas and seek out the necessary and deliberate practice needed to compensate for those weaknesses. For gamers, strong metacognitive functions translate to game-world success. Exceptional students excel at using these kinds of metacognitive processes at school. Most children excel at using them when sitting in front of a tablet or a video game console. 

Educators need to understand that the greater the precision with which a student can assess his or her own knowledge and design intentional strategies to strengthen that knowledge, the easier learning becomes. Metacognition lies at the foundation of good study skills. 

In the classroom, when students struggle with metacognitive abilities, teachers need to step in and facilitate by:

  • Modeling good learning strategies;
  • Demonstrating ongoing assessment and providing constant feedback so that metacognitive iteration eventually becomes a habitual self-practice for students;
  • Focusing on isolating precise skills and scaffolding deliberate knowledge acquisition and practice.


One great strategy is to use video-game metaphors when talking to students, and let them see that each failure is just like losing a life while playing Pac-Man. It is simply an iterative step on the way to eventual success. 

If you have the technological resources, try incorporating educational video games into your curriculum. Increasingly, game designers are working to engage students in deliberative game-based practice around traditional academic subjects. 

Apply the wisdom of the game world to the life world.