Gaming to Learn: How Educational Games Benefit Students

Bobby Miller

When someone’s playing a game, whether sport or video, the amount of concentration they show is amazing. It’s as if the entire world is reduced to that game—everything else is blocked out. And the most committed players don’t hesitate to practice for hours a day in order to maintain their skill.

If only students would show that level of commitment to their schoolwork. So often, poor grades aren’t the result of incompetence, but a lack of motivation to study or finish homework. In order to inject students with motivation, some teachers use educational games in their classrooms.

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Searching for “educational games” on Amazon yields over 67,000 results, clearly showing that there is a huge market for them.

Most teachers only use games in the classroom to assess how much students have learned. According to Hatice Sancar Tokmak and Sinan Ozgelen of Mersin University, it’s rare for instructors to use games for actual teaching. They’re leery of picking any computer games that involve material the students haven’t learned yet because, to them, games are primarily meant for reviewing or testing.

Elements of an Effective Educational Game

For an educational game to teach children new material effectively, it must have three key elements. A team of researchers from Madrid’s Complutense University believe a game must have “the possibility for evaluation, adaptability and ease of integration.” Different school districts have different curriculums, so it is helpful when a teacher can easily manipulate a game to fit the students’ needs.

The researchers also point out that it is beneficial if students can play the game at home and teachers can track their progress. Finally, a game is more effective if it adapts to each students’ needs. For instance, if a student seems to be struggling with a certain part of the material, then the game should focus on improving their performance in that area.

One game that meets this criteria is “DimensionM.” This computer game blends math problems with traditional gameplay elements, such as a storyline and a 3-D world to explore. It also features multiplayer components to further motivate students.

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“DimensionM” gives the player math problems to solve as they explore a 3-D world.

According to the game’s official website, using it for 15 minutes of class time twice a week for five weeks results in “increased exam scores, fluency and excitement about math.” It is easy for educators to use because they can access a detailed analysis of how well students are performing, and they can customize it with “curriculum packs.” Questions related to literacy instead of math can be downloaded. Plus, as is important for educational games, it’s compatible with a variety of operating systems. It can be played on Macs and on PCs using any operating system from Windows 2000 onward, making it a viable option for schools without cutting-edge technology.

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The website Avert.org shows that just about anything can be turned into an educational game.

Studies have verified the effectiveness of games as an educational tool. A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Texas concluded after two studies that “using a technology-based game in the classroom [is] beneficial to students of all ability levels in learning arithmetic skills.” So a game can help honors students, struggling students and everyone in between. The technology-based game used in the study proved more effective than a paper-based game because it was more engaging and more easily adaptable to each student’s needs.

Of course, a game can be used to teach more than just math. For example, Science Daily has reported that there are computer games in Uganda meant to educate students on HIV and AIDS, namely, how to prevent the ailments from spreading.

Added Benefits of Learning through Playing

In addition to adaptability, ease of integration and the possibility of assessment, there are many other criteria used to evaluate how effective an educational game is. A team of scientists led by J.C. Hong of National Taiwan Normal University devised a list of seven areas in which an educational game could enhance a student’s performance. To begin with, a game can improve a student’s “mentality,” giving them more perseverance, better planning skills and more. It can also lead to “emotional fulfillment” in raising self-esteem and cooperation skills.

The ability of games to improve self-esteem has also been noted by Mark Griffiths, a psychology professor at Nottingham Trent University who holds a doctorate in psychology. He believes that the instantaneous feedback and rewards students earn provides a sense of accomplishment “and may inspire them to take productive risks in other areas of their lives as well.”

Hong and other Taiwanese researchers note that an obvious criterion to evaluate an educational game is how much “knowledge enhancement” it provides. For example, does a vocabulary game actually increase a student’s vocabulary like it should? Does a music game help students play or compose music more efficiently?

Games can also lead to “thinking skill development” by increasing memory capacity, imagination, problem-solving skills and more. “Interpersonal skills” can also be influenced by games that encourage helping and trusting others through effective communication. Kwan Min Lee, Eui Jun Jeong, Namkee Park and Seoungho Ryu published a study that verified how games are more effective when played with others. According to their research, “students evaluated the learning method more positively when they interacted and competed with other people, online condition, than when they played games alone, off-line condition.”

In addition, Hong noted that games can benefit “spatial ability development” by helping a person create mental maps more quickly. Finally, games with action can improve “bodily coordination” by testing dexterity. Aside from hand-eye coordination, games with motion controls can test the player’s ability to coordinate their whole body.

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Educational games can be particularly helpful for students with mental impairments. “Recent evidence suggests that people with ADHD have plenty of attention,” Jonah Rehrer of Wired asserted. “That’s why they can still play video games for hours, or get lost in their Legos, or devote endless attentional resources to activities that they find interesting.” So an educational game can hold their interest in a way that more basic forms of instruction can’t.

Finally, a game does not have to be specifically designed as educational to benefit students’ cognitive abilities. According to Livestrong.com, a chess master named Peter Dauvergne has published a study concluding that “teaching children chess strategies helps prepare them for future decision making.” When playing a strategy game, it can be helpful to point out the different moves available and allow the student to consider the consequences of each one. Also, games such as “Simon,” “Perfection” and “Mastermind” can improve a student’s memory. Other games, such as “Pictionary” and “Cranium,” can encourage creative skills, as Livestrong noted.

Since games truly engage the player with the material, they can benefit a student’s motivation to learn. Although it can be difficult to compete with more traditional games, educational ones are capable of being fun and rewarding at the same time.

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