Special Report
Classroom Technology

Digital Games: Powerful Motivation Tool or Not So Much?

By Mark Lieberman — January 06, 2021 8 min read
Image shows two boys playing online games.

Remote and hybrid learning are fueling the use of digital games in K-12 instruction more than ever before. But, strangely enough, the students who have grown up in a digital gaming culture are not particularly impressed.

In an exclusive survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 60 percent of middle and high school students said they’re playing digital games for instructional purposes more than they did before the pandemic. About the same percentage of teachers who responded to a separate survey said they are incorporating more digital games into lessons than before COVID-19.

But educators and students do not necessarily agree on the impact of using those games.

More than 60 percent of teachers who are using games more often said the games are making learning more interesting for students, while only a quarter of the students playing more games said they make learning more interesting.

Data on teachers incorporating digital games for instruction.

Those findings bring an interesting twist to questions about the role of digital games in instruction, especially since one of the biggest arguments in favor of using games is that they are one of the best tools teachers have to motivate and engage students.

One reason students might not value the games they are playing at school could be that educators are haphazardly integrating games into learning without strategizing first, suggested Richard Van Eck, a researcher who has studied educational games and currently serves as associate dean for teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Van Eck said children value games not necessarily because they’re flashy and entertaining, but because they’re “hard fun”—in other words, it is the thrill of the game’s challenge that keeps students coming back.

Incorporating digital games as a tool for engaging students is okay, Van Eck said, but “if you do so on a superficial level, you’re not tapping into the benefits, like promoting problem solving and critical thinking.”

That could be a huge missed opportunity: 90 percent of U.S. teenagers say they play games on a cellphone, computer, or game console, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

How Games Can Help Teaching

Laura Steinbrink had been using digital games as a teaching tool before the pandemic. Students used online quiz games from platforms like Quizizz and Kahoot and competed against other classes for high scores. They even set weekly goals for improving their scores.

Plato High School in Plato, Mo., where Steinbrink teaches Spanish, English, and other subjects, has been open this fall for full-time in-person learning. But some students and teachers have had to stay home for two-week stretches to quarantine after potentially being exposed to COVID-19. The games have helped Steinbrink keep instruction going for those students who were at home, and to track students’ progress during a two-week period when she had to stay home and appear virtually before her in-person students.

She’s even helped spread the gospel of digital games to her colleagues with training sessions over the summer. “Kahoot and Quizizz are a lot more used now throughout the district than they were before,” she said. Seventy-six percent of teachers in the EdWeek Research Center survey said they’re getting ideas from their fellow teachers for using games as teaching tools.

Teachers at Plato High have been using games much more frequently since the pandemic started, as an alternative to handing out paper worksheets and potentially spreading germs, said Kelsey Todd, a junior in Steinbrink’s homeroom class.

Cecilia Groves, a junior in Steinbrink’s Spanish 2, mythology, and yearbook classes, said games help with memorization and performing better on tests, especially for students who otherwise struggle to memorize. “It really helps them understand what we are learning rather than just seeing it one time and being expected to know it,” she said.

Students also get excited by the competitive element, according to Todd and Groves. “We fake get mad at each other, but we’re obviously kidding and it’s all fun and games,” Groves said.

Even so, the pandemic has revealed some of the limitations of digital games as teaching tools. During the spring, when students were learning exclusively at home, Steinbrink had to pull out old copies of her paper vocabulary exercises to send to students who couldn’t connect to online games.

Plus, Groves said some of her peers who generally have a negative attitude about school do not seem more interested in learning simply because they are playing more games for class.

Students’ home connectivity issues have also made it harder for teacher Rachelle Dene Poth to assess whether a student scored low on an online quiz game or simply ran into a glitch and couldn’t finish it on time.

What’s more, Poth worries that the use of games for learning contributes to the already record levels of screen time students are experiencing. “I do want the kids to get a break from the screen,” said Poth, who teaches foreign languages and STEAM at Riverview Junior/Senior High in Oakmont, Pa.

‘Dabble in Digital Gaming’

Digital games have been an effective learning tool during the pandemic for Michael Matera, who teaches 6th grade history at the University School of Milwaukee, a private K-12 school. He’s long used board games to get students excited about learning, but that wasn’t possible when all his students were at home, so he had to get creative.

He’s now regularly streaming live on YouTube with interactive “roll and write” games (like Yahtzee) which involve rolling dice and writing results down and can be played by an infinitely large group of people at the same time.

And on Zoom, he came up with his own game activity called “Image Battle Royale,” in which students scramble to search the internet for a single image that illustrates a concept, like a gift box to represent the gift of the Nile for Egypt’s economy.

These activities have helped Matera construct the friendly, engaged atmosphere that he likes to use in his physical classroom. He said they also help teach valuable skills such as strategic thinking, resource management, and information literacy.

“I could lecture as a history teacher talking about generals being flexible in their strategy,” Matera said. “But the concept of information literacy just becomes apparent when you play a game.”

Data: Compared to before the pandemic, are online or digital games incorporated more now into your classes?

Some teachers use games to help overcome flaws or gaps in other teaching materials. In one section of Poth’s Spanish textbook, for example, “you learn ‘I dance’ and ‘you dance’, but you don’t learn how to say anybody else dances until three chapters later,” she said. Quizlet games show her students those additional vocabulary words before they appear in their textbook.

Rebecca Gibboney has been urging teachers to think about gamification in her role as a curriculum specialist for BLaST Intermediate Unit 17, which provides support and training for teachers in four northern Pennsylvania counties. She believes games can be crucial tools to motivate students, particularly during a pandemic.

In the spring, many teachers were overinvesting their time in lengthy videoconference meetings and live instruction with students, Gibboney said. “As people are starting to develop an understanding of that healthy balance, I think they’re starting to dabble in digital gaming,” tapping into online game repositories like BreakoutEDU, she said.

‘Renaissance of the Physical’

None of the pandemic-related growth in digital game use in schools comes as a surprise to the nonprofit Games for Change, which creates and distributes games for social impact goals.

“It’s accelerated the process of acceptance” that digital games are useful in schools, said Susanna Pollack, the organization’s president. Teachers “are so challenged with finding activities and learning opportunities to engage with remotely that having a program that taps into an interest area like video games gives them that extra edge.”

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Van Eck said he’s hopeful that parents and schools alike will now demand higher-quality, more sophisticated educational games from the market, especially after parents saw students’ learning experience up close during extended remote learning.

Those games should feature more built-in tools for assessing students’ performance and more integrations with other technology platforms schools are already using, said David Birchfield, founder and CEO of SMALLab Learning, a company that specializes in 3D learning environments.

He cautions against the use of standalone commercial online games that are not directly linked to instructional priorities. Those games can lead students down the wrong path, he said.

Experts predict digital games will likely continue to be a big part of the learning landscape this school year and beyond. More than two-thirds of students learning entirely in person this fall said they’re playing more digital games than they did previously, a slightly larger share than that of students experiencing full-time remote learning and hybrid learning, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

Brooklyn Atterberry, a junior in Steinbrink’s Spanish 2 and yearbook classes, generally doesn’t like school but has recently enjoyed games on Gimkit, a popular set of online educational games created by a 2019 high school graduate. “It does add in more of the effect of actually playing a game while you are still learning,” Atterberry said. “It makes you want to learn more often.”

Still, some educators suggest the novelty appeal of digital game use may wear off a bit when schools can ease pandemic restrictions and the emphasis on online learning drops off, compared with now.

“My guess is when it’s all said and done, we’re going to see a renaissance of the physical,” Matera said. “I think you’re going to see more people doing cardboard challenges.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Digital Games: Powerful Motivation Tool or Not So Much?

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