June 28, 2019
Games have goals. Classes have outcomes. Learning outcomes are a way for faculty, educators, and instructional designers to form and shape how a class will be structured.
Game designers also form and shape the player’s experience through structures, loops, and other activities.
Some may think that these two areas are completely separate. But when taking advantage of games-based learning, they become one and the same.
Creating quality learning outcomes
Learning outcomes are user-friendly statements. They are meant to be read and reviewed by students. They outline exactly what the student will be able to do and accomplish by the end of this specific class, course, or module.
But learning outcomes are not usually included in games. Game designers don’t approach this from the player’s perspective. Instead, they focus on goals and progress.
Game designers begin with the goal. They ask “what do we want player to do?” That goal is then achieved through the game’s different activities.
Game goals and learning outcomes can find common ground by combining their focus. Learning outcomes include student products, artifacts, and performances. Whereas games focus on the activities that help players gain points, items, levels, and experience.
This means that quality educational games balance all of these: meaningful student engagement, structuring of learning activities, and assessment of learning outcomes.
Structuring the student player experience
Learning outcomes are structured in six levels (from the lowest to the highest cognitive skills). These are:
Game structures can inform how learning outcomes are written and structured. Different game elements can support experiential learning by applying these different levels of cognitive skills. Specifically:
Learning outcomes are structured so that there is always an action. This will result in an experience where knowledge is created and learning occurs. Students are asked to do some sort of activity which will then result in a specific outcome. Likewise, games are designed with engaging activities. The player continues to follow the core loop until they reach a specific outcome or goal. At which point the game state has changed: the player, content, and environment are no longer the same.
This means that when writing games-based learning outcomes: educators must include both the learning activity and the outcome. Both are structured in a way where the outcome is targeted towards the student; an activity is clearly defined; and the conditions for achievement are outlined.
Writing learning outcomes
When looking at learning outcomes, the key thing to consider is making sure that you have a selection of active and measurable verbs. These are the things that you want your students to do after completing this course, class, or module.
Here are some things you want to avoid: writing learning outcomes that are too general or hard to measure like “…they will enjoy the game” or “…they will appreciate this new form of reasoning.”
You also want to avoid writing your outcomes in a way that is hard to measure like: “…the players will create value from collecting coins” or “…students will determine that a new skill is worth knowing.”
What you want to do is write your outcomes in a way that is specific and easy to measure. Some good examples of this are “Players will invest beans into their coffee production so that they can produce more coffee grounds” or “Students will compare and contrast their own professional development to other experienced administrators.”
These outcomes should be specific with an order in which students are supposed to experience them. For games these includes phrases like “by the end of this level the player will have earned enough points to use the bow and arrow” or “by the end of this course the student will be able to deliver a three minute informational speech.”
Learning and assessment
So while it may be difficult to combine aspects of game design with writing learning outcomes, they can actually be achieved through some careful thought and consideration. Well designed learning games balance both of these considerations in an environment that is fun, engaging, and meets students where they need to be challenged and supported. Doing so helps to maximize games-based learning’s value.
However, critics argue that games do not meet current models for assessment and accountability. That games themselves are too “fungible” to be accurately tracked and assessed. While this may be the case for some, games-based learning as a whole provides some additional strengths.
A games-based learning activity can provide information on student engagement where instructors, educators, and teachers alike can make immediate changes and adjustments to their practice. Doing so helps practitioners become more flexible and engaging in their work.
Games-based learning uses existing games to help students achieve learning outcomes. Games are great for engaging students because they provide them with opportunities to put learned content into practice.
Part of the reason for games-based learning’s success is its’ ability to provide instructors with “invisible assessments.” Such assessments allows educators to adjust their implementation of games, conduct immediate debriefings with students, and examine their knowledge formation.
This is done primarily through observation. In games, educators can observe student actions. They can closely monitor what they are doing, how long it is taking them to do it, how many attempts they have made, and the sequence of activities. Through this format, they can carefully scaffold their help and assistance as well as how they communicate with their students overall.
Fun in feedback
Games are fun because they give you immediate and tangible feedback through your interaction. Games-based learning can do the same thing through the prioritization of learning outcomes. This can be achieved by providing both students and players with information about their own level of proficiency and how they are progressing.
One of the most applicable examples of this is Tetris. When you place a block that creates a line: all of the blocks in your line disappear. This allows you to place even more blocks that will clear existing blocks from future play. This simple mechanic provides the player with immediate feedback and a sense of gratification. Placing the block in the best place clears the most lines.
We can relate this to games-based learning where students get an immediate sense of feedback from their activities. Being able to correctly identify patterns in texts, detect a theory in effect, and apply their learning in action are all great forms of active feedback.
These are the rare moments of interactions where connections click for students. It’s the sudden moment of enlightened knowing that provides that visceral and addictive sense of accomplishment.
Success in structure
Students’ sense of accomplishment is different based on the games they play and how they are used for learning. This makes adapting commercially available games challenging for achieving our students’ learning goals. There is no universal rubric for all games. Instead, we must think carefully and well about what we want our players to do and our students to learn.
What we can do as educators is ensure the quality of game play. Making sure that our students are interacting within the system we’ve designed in order to meet our prescribed learning outcomes is key. From time to time, our students may go off the beaten path and surprise us. Despite that, it is most important to ensure that the structure of the game is well connected to our learning outcomes.
Different educators have different ways of doing this. Staying focused when students are playing can be challenging. But, this can be done by giving them clear goals and tasks to accomplish. Well designed games make this apparent. But ensuring that your students stick those goals in the context of your learning outcomes is paramount.
Intervening with your learners
Making sure that your students stick to those learning goals in context is critical for their learning and success. That means observing your students to infer how they are performing.
This will be easier in some circumstances compared to others. Checking on your students with assessments like multiple choice tests is wildly different compared to examining how your students solve problems, think critically, and collaborate with one another.
Making sure that your students know what they will be evaluated on is important as well. For this reason, make sure that you make your games-based learning outcomes a part of your syllabus. I also make it a habit of declaring it to my students before engaging in any game play. This way they have a structure for how they plan to address their activities in your class.
Lastly, ensure that your students know that this is still a relatively new method of teaching. Because of that, they should feel free to ask whatever questions they want about the class. This will help ease them into this new form of instruction. You can also help students adapt to this format by asking them questions while they play and engage. Ask them what they are doing. “What is that?” and “What do you think will happen?” are some good questions.
Remember, it’s all about engaging with your learners in a way that in meaningful and helps them achieve the outcomes you’ve set. That’s the bedrock of good teaching and instructor lead training.
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