The Art and Science of Teaching / Using Games to Enhance Student Achievement - ASCD
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February 1, 2010

The Art and Science of Teaching / Using Games to Enhance Student Achievement

Games are a regular part of students' lives, no matter what their grade level. Students play games throughout the day on their computers, the Internet, and their cell phones. One of the few places they don't regularly play games is in their classrooms. Although some teachers use games as a part of their instructional repertoire, most teachers do not, and those who do include them may not be using them to their potential.

Over the last five years, I have had the opportunity to examine the influence of academic games in a variety of classes and subject areas. I have been involved in more than 60 studies conducted by classroom teachers on the effects of games on student achievement. 1 These studies showed that, on average, using academic games in the classroom is associated with a 20 percentile point gain in student achievement. This is a relatively strong finding.

Designing Games for Classroom Use

Teachers can adapt a variety of games for academic purposes. The games used in the studies were all adaptations of popular game shows, such as Jeopardy, Family Feud, the $100,000 Pyramid, and the like.

To illustrate, a social studies teacher might create Jeopardy questions that involve categories of content such as Rights and Responsibilities, Culture, Economic Systems, Current Events, Geography, and the Judicial System. Each category would include items of increasing difficulty. For example, an easy item within the category of Rights and Responsibilities might be, "The year in which women across the United States were given the right to vote." As is the convention in Jeopardy, students would frame their response in the form of a factual question: "What is 1920?" Another item in this category might be, "This protects U.S. citizens from having to testify against themselves." In response, a student would ask, "What is the Fifth Amendment?"

Getting the Most Out of Games

Even though the overall effect of using games in the classroom was strong in the studies we conducted, not all studies demonstrated uniform results. Some demonstrated much greater effects than the 20 percentile point gain, some demonstrated smaller effects, and some demonstrated no effects or even negative ones.

  • Use inconsequential competition. In general, students like to compete as long as the stakes are not high. During a two-week unit of instruction, a teacher might organize students into teams of four students each. Teams might play games four or five times during that unit. Each time they play, the first three teams to complete the game receive points (for example, 3 points for the first team to finish, 2 points for the second team, and 1 point for the third team). At the end of the unit, the teacher adds up the points for each team, and the three teams with the highest number of points get some inconsequential but fun reward, such as coupons to buy juice from the vending machines in the cafeteria.Throughout the year, the teacher should reorganize the teams so all students have the experience of winning and losing. However, teachers must not factor game points into students' grades for the unit. The points and rewards are simply for fun.

  • Target essential academic content. If games do not focus on important academic content, they will have little or no effect on student achievement and waste valuable classroom time. The most efficient way to maintain an academic focus is to organize games around important terms and phrases. For example, during a unit on dance moves, a dance teacher might identify terms and phrases such as axial movement, line of gravity, movement phrase, and nonlocomotor movement. Questions and answers would involve information important to these terms and phrases.

  • Debrief the game. The most common error teachers make when using games is to add up team points and move on. The whole point of playing academic games in the classroom is to provide opportunities for students to examine important content in a lively and enjoyable venue. To stimulate analysis of important terms and phrases, a teacher can ask students which questions were difficult to answer and why.For example, suppose that during a game of Pictionary in a mathematics class, students had difficulty drawing an image to represent the Fibonacci sequence. At the conclusion of the game, the teacher would ask students about their difficulties with this item. The discussion would serve as a brief review of the defining characteristics of a Fibonacci sequence.

  • Have students revise their notes. One generalization that applies to learning all types of content is that students must have opportunities to revise their understanding of the content as time goes by. When a game has ended and the class has discussed difficult terms and concepts related to the content, the teacher should give students time to revise their notes. A teacher might ask students to look over what they have previously written about this content in their notes and make any necessary changes. This might involve correcting misconceptions or adding new information that the students were unaware of.

Classrooms can address even the most difficult content in a lighthearted, engaging way. Games are a powerful and useful tool to this end. Teacher-conducted research indicates that games can have a significant effect on student achievement when teachers use them purposefully and thoughtfully.

End Notes

1 Haystead, M. W., & Marzano, R. J. (2009). Meta-Analytic Synthesis of Studies Conducted at Marzano Research Laboratory on Instructional Strategies. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory.

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