Student engagement is the name of the (interactive) game

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Don’t be switched off by technology-based educational games – research shows they can have an incredible impact on motivation and knowledge acquisition, finds Sara de Freitas

Student engagement is the name of the game

The room is silent apart from the low hum of life outside of the window. The children are all absorbed in their screens, completely lost in the moment, tapping away. So, what’s happening? Is this a vignette of technology-ravaged teens, unable to prise themselves away from the latest online game? Are they ruining their concentration skills and damaging their learning?

Nope. These children are at school, in a classroom, completing a learning game. They aren’t distracted from learning, they are learning. But for some people, this is a worrying picture. The content should be engaging enough, they insist, without resorting to gimmicks.

We all know about the importance of engagement. It motivates students to learn, keeps them learning and ensures they complete tasks successfully. But it can be elusive. Hard to create and harder still to maintain.

Sometimes you need the hook of a game, of tech, of an interactive element. This is not to criticise traditional chalk-and-talk or Socratic methods – which are no less effective than they ever were – but hooks are another tool in the toolbox.

Over the past couple of decades, in laboratories at the University of London and Coventry University, I have been measuring engagement; building, testing and evaluating games; and considering how pedagogy and interactive game play can be most usefully implemented. The result has been the development of various models, frameworks and tools for practitioners, aimed at supporting learning design with game elements. A lot of these bring benefits by inducing a state known as “flow”.

Go with the flow

Flow is a state of mind that we have all experienced. It’s when you lose your sense of time and place – when engrossed in a book or a film, for example. Hungarian-American positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term and researched it extensively: he has found that the flow state reinforces engagement, creating a loss of consciousness of time and place.

So, how can we help children get into that fully engaged flow state? Often not through content alone, I’d argue. And why rely on content alone when there so many other tools we can utilise? In our studies (1), my colleagues and I have compared chalk-and-talk methods with game-based approaches and found games to be more engaging, offering improvements in levels of self-efficacy or motivation.

We have also found that flow can be broken down into elements including challenge-to-skill balance, loss of conscious thought, concentration, playability and sense of control (2).

Optimal flow experiences led to increased levels of concentration, intrinsic rewards, loss of self-consciousness and time distortion. From analysing education games using these categories, we were able to establish which were more effective and explain why some games were more absorbing than others.

This work has helped us to design frameworks and tools for developing more effective learning games and to help practitioners select which games are most suited to their topic area.

We’ve found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that games designed for educational purposes are more effective than entertainment games used for education. We’ve also found that a mixture of role play and point acquisition is motivating. The way feedback is presented in these moments is particularly important for learning to be reinforced: it needs to be simple, clear and with objectives that are well understood.

Successive meta-reviews have shown consistent findings in support of games being beneficial for learning. For example, Clark et al (3) found that “digital games significantly enhanced student learning relative to non-game conditions”, while Boyle et al (4) found that “the most frequently occurring outcome reported for games for learning was knowledge acquisition”. Meanwhile, Lau et al (5) found a moderate effect on improvement of symptoms favouring “serious games over no intervention controls”.

An extra dimension

So, what do interactive games have to offer that traditional teaching does not in terms of engagement? First up, we’ve found that they are often experiential and operating in three dimensions, or with the effect of three dimensions. This aligns well with teaching philosophies that stress the need for active engagement, or active learning, such as the constructivist theories of Vygotsky and Piaget, including experiential learning and exploratory learning (6).

The second important aspect is feedback: if a student receives an immediate response, they are more likely to remember it and put it into effect. In games, this process can be automated. In a classroom, the teacher needs to be responsive to 30 or more students at any one time, and it is impossible to give all of them the level of immediate feedback that we can programme to take place automatically in an educational game.

Time and again, we have seen that immediate feedback supports and enhances learning performance and outcomes positively. So, we need to find ways to blend game-based and more traditional methods of feedback.

The simplest way to bring these approaches into the classroom is to use points to motivate students and leaderboards to introduce a competitive element.

We know, however, that points can be motivating for some students but stressful for others, so low-stakes competition makes sense to cater for the variety of competencies across the class. Leaderboards are a simple way to introduce gamification into the classroom but our studies have found they work best if students are in teams, results aren’t necessarily publicly known and expectations are clear from the outset.

Enhancing and entrancing

As game technology develops and we have a better understanding about what engagement is and how flow can be introduced into learning experiences in the classroom, we should expect greater interactivity in all learning.

This will mean that students become more engaged. The future classroom will include access to more complicated simulated lab experiments that students can play with, and greater engagement through games and simulations will become more commonplace.

We should not be afraid to use games and interactive content in our classrooms; they offer new ways of engaging our students, allowing them to perform better and apply what they are learning in new, inventive ways.

While technology is a part of the future of learning, the role of the teacher will continue to be central, mediating knowledge and allowing our children to be in the flow state from beginning to the end of class.

Sara de Freitas has worked in education for 25 years, holding senior roles in universities in the UK and Australia, and publishing seven books and more than 200 papers on student engagement

This article originally appeared in the 2 August 2019 issue under the headline “Engagement is the name of the (interactive) game”