Games-based learning – its time is now

In this new era of linear courses and high-stakes testing, games-based learning has a more important part to play than ever, argues Jayne Warburton

Motivating and engaging students is a perennial hot topic in schools, but finding ways to keep students on track is even more challenging as we transition from a modular to a linear structure for GCSE and A level courses, with high-stakes terminal assessment always on the horizon.

Gamification of learning – essentially, the application of game elements into an educational setting – provides an opportunity for schools to make lessons more fun and engaging, without diminishing or undermining pedagogical credibility. It helps learners gain motivation and, because of the immediate and positive feedback that’s built in, helps students move forward with their studies and become more interested and stimulated to learn.

While gamification does involve dangling incentives in front of the learner at regular intervals, it is actually a lot more complex than this. There is nothing inherently wrong with external motivation, but the real trick is to engender intrinsic motivation too – getting students to love learning and to see themselves as successful in what they do.

Challenges ahead

The new exams have various implications for teachers, not least that many will need to adapt their teaching styles accordingly. For example, the overlapping tiers of the new maths exams means teachers will need to find really engaging methods of teaching across the whole ability range.

There may also be time pressures when working with students of different abilities and with different learning styles. And with course work and controlled assessment being replaced with a high-stakes test at the end of two years, exam preparations and revision will become even more of a focus for pupils and teachers alike.

Because large numbers of teachers have neither studied nor taught linear courses before, there is likely to be an increased need for support in order to cope with the new course format. There will also be a greater emphasis on raising attainment of the entire cohort of pupils for the Progress 8 score. Predicting the new 1-9 GCSE grades may also be tricky, especially in the first years of the reformed exams, as will tracking students’ progress without the benefit of modular results along the way.

Teachers will need to make regular checks to ensure pupils are on track, with termly assessments and pre- and postunit/ topic tests, as well as formative and summative assessments.

Easing the transition

It’s an exciting time to be in teaching, not least because of the possibilities and opportunities offered via new interactive digital resources, including material designed to support and guide teachers and link progression clearly to the new mark schemes.

Games-based learning can help in many ways. First, it will support less confident students who may in the past have relied on coursework and controlled assessments to bump up their GCSE marks. With the linear approach they won’t be able to rely on earlier successes and therefore there will be even more of a need for them feel confident and engaged with a subject, given they will be marked under timed conditions only.

Games-based learning offers a non-threatening and supportive environment where students can explore their skills, without feeling like they are failing – helping them to feel secure in their ability and motivated to improve. It’s an approach that has been proven to raise engagement and encourage students to practise their skills.

Where secondary students differ from primary is in the need for them to have more autonomy over their learning. Understanding their own strengths and weaknesses will be invaluable when working towards a no-coursework GCSE, allowing them to drive their own learning.

Gaining mastery

One of the dangers of the high-stakes terminal exams is that students could end up practising the concepts necessary to pass, without really gaining mastery of them. However the government brought in the new curriculum to develop depth of learning before breadth, so it’s important that key principles of a subject can build on one another so that ultimately mastery is achieved.

Getting students to use games-based learning can be a useful way of prompting them to revisit concepts until they improve and have really understood methods. Achieving mastery is the key to being able to answer any question thrown at students in an exam. Surveys have found that learners generally recall just 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear. If there are visuals accompanying an oral presentation, the number rises to 30%, and if they observe someone carrying out an action while explaining it, 50%. But learners remember 90% ‘if they do the job themselves’, even if only as a simulation. Learners’ favourite gamification techniques include the ability to progress to different levels, receiving scores and playing through an avatar – all often found in high-quality digital education resources.

Such resources also typically offer access to ebooks that cover, for example, a particular topic in maths. These encourage students to work through the problems sequentially until they reach a point where they have mastered a concept. They are carefully scaffolded with interactive elements which really help to maintain student engagement and encourage them to take a ‘deep dive’ into the topic. The interactive sections are embedded precisely into the content a student is learning to maximise the ability for them to understand a concept, as quickly as possible. In many cases, students and teachers can literally manipulate and interact with content, for example by adjusting parabolic equations to see how a graph reacts. Nothing like this is possible with pen and paper!

Supporting teaching and revision

Even though teachers will have to work hard to get their students used to the no-course work style of study and exam, having the option to assess students using digital resources will help also break up the repetitiveness of pen and paper.

So, a good digital resource will also be a really useful revision tool. Empowering students through independent learning will have a huge impact on their skills and ultimately give them more confidence to tackle exams. Unlike exams, games give constant feedback and keep the stakes low.

While the necessary adaptations to teaching could well add to workload, a good e-learning resource can actually save time by providing teachers with tools such as:

  • Online timed assessments that can be easily and regularly assigned to students
  • Options to create their own courses to focus on topics that students haven’t mastered
  • Monitoring results and giving feedback on where students can improve.

Let’s not forget that students are used to playing games when they are out of school. 57 per cent of the UK’s population are ‘gamers’ in their spare time, with the largest single age/ demographic being 15-24-year-old males, making up 16 per cent of all players.

So if students are voluntarily investing countless hours in developing gaming skills outside of school, it has to be sensible to show them how the experience they gain through extended practice and strategies such as ‘risk-taking’, reasoning and problem-solving can be harnessed and used successfully in the classroom too.
By playing an educational game student spend more time actively learning and reinforcing their knowledge, which can provide for a proper flipped learning experience.

By incentivising this effort we support that human desire to self-improve – and just as importantly, allow students to demonstrate that improvement to themselves and others.

About the author

Jayne Warburton is CEO, 3P Learning, Europe and Middle East.

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