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Lessons to be Learned from Video Games

Stuck in the pocket of many a student’s backpack, you are likely to find a hand held video game w arm from play.  If not, then a cell phone with games played when adults are not looking.  Rather than expressing a dislike for the amount of time our students spend playing video games, think about what we can learn from them to improve our teaching.  Upon closer examination, video games have a lot in common with sound, research-based pedagogy.

I did not grow up with a video game system.  As a child the only opportunities I had to play video games were at the orthodontist’s office, where an Asteroids game occupied the coffee table location in the waiting area, or on a rare occasion when we went out to eat pizza where they had a Pac-Man game.  But I fully remember learning to play Donkey Kong as a young adult after buying my own Super Nintendo. I played that game over, and over, and over, learning patterns, learning pitfalls, dying and playing again from the same point I mastered last time.  Why did I spend so much time playing that game?

 To begin with, each video game typically has a big goal with smaller goals divided up throughout the story line.  When playing the game you know what you need to accomplish.  You are on a quest, or in a race, but you know what you have set out to do.  As educators, we know that research supports the use of setting goals in the classroom. When students know the objective for the lesson there is evidence that this has a positive impact on learning. Look again at Robert Marzano’s top nine strategies in the book Classroom Instruction that Works (Marzano, 2001).   Setting objectives and providing feedback is one of the top strategies for increasing student achievement.  Do we consciously create a story line of the instructional goals so that students are aware of their learning as they journey through math?  Might our students respond better to the lessons if we did? I believe so wholeheartedly. 

In video games when you successfully complete a level or a task, there tends to be some celebration (depending on the type of game of course).  Though I might not jump up and down in the classroom like the fans in my Wii Sport games, it makes you feel good when your accomplishments are celebrated and you know you have met your goal.  Robert Marzano refers to this as Reinforcing Effort and Providing Feedback – the third most successful research-based strategy listed.

Secondly, video games provide immediate feedback and provide several opportunities for practice. You do not continue to play, not knowing whether you are on the right track.  In racing games, if you get off track there is an arrow to redirect your path.  In role-play games, if you continue down the wrong corridor,you end up having to turn back because there is nothing to do down there (or a voice might even tell you to turn around).  And if you are riding in a cart with Diddy Kong and you miss a jump, you failed and you know you failed because your cart falls off into an abyss.  But you do not get to move on to the next segment of the game. You must go back to last place where you showed mastery (the save point)and play again from there until you get it right.  When you are learning a new game you do this over, and over,and over.  You fail and die and try again, repeatedly until you are successful.  Many of us gamers are so intent in mastering a level that we completely lose track of time and play into the wee hours of the morning.  When students fail a math assignment or quiz, we can follow the same model and allow them go back to the beginning and do it again until they get it right. Just a few problems will do, so that the student can try again. Mastering each skill or concept is especially important in math, because the skills and concepts build on each other.  If a student does not successfully learn how to divide, it is no wonder why they are not able to manipulate equations. 

I realize that we have standards to meet and that there is a set amount of time in the classroom, which sometimes limits our abilities to stop and re-teach.  Instructional decisions are not easy and cannot be taken lightly.  We need to think about how we can structure our lessons so that our students have ample time to “play the game” of math with opportunities to go back and try again.  We know from a variety of brain researchers that timely, specific feedback is essential for learning.

This brings me to my next point, that the skills learned in a video game build on each other and are used from one level to the next.  Each time you enter a new level, there are new skills to be learned, just as there are in math.  But then as you move on, those skills are used again, typically in a new setting so you learn to transfer your knowledge.  Some games even provide hints to remind you to use a skill or object you learned in an earlier level.  Spiraling curriculum works in a similar method.  Intentionally planning when you will return to a skill or concept and reinforce the learning promotes retention.  If we teach something once and then leave it alone, how many of our students will recall that information at a later time? Skills are learned individually and then combined, which applies to teaching math as well.  Successful math pedagogy allows students to chunk and chew each concept.  When they are ready you can assist your students in combining their skills to address a more challenging problem or concept.

Video games offer a lens for examining the use of what research has shown to be effective pedagogy.  Working toward a goal, receiving timely and specific feedback, failing and then trying again until you are successful, learning skills in isolation and then combining them to solve more difficult problems are all aspects of gaming that keep us coming back for more.  Consciously structuring learning experiences in math using the same strategies can help you and your students level up and master the game of math with the record for the high score.


Anne Douglas is Dean of Instruction for Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, a comprehensive high school in Houston, TX.

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