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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
Any parent who has watched her nine-year-old play video games for three hours straight without a bathroom or snack break knows what engagement looks like.
And it stands to reason that anything instructional designers can do to replicate that kind of addiction around educational content must be all to the good.
Gamification—the use of games to increase student engagement with online learning content—has been a trend for about 10 years now. But from the beginning, educational researchers have regularly reminded the public that many types of games have little impact on students’ actual learning.
In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Mayer describe a 2012 study into the benefits of using games to learn electro-mechanical principles. One group of students learned the principles through a slideshow presentation. The other group played an immersive game, applying electro-mechanical principles to open doors in order to retrieve lost World War II art. Not surprisingly, learning the material through the game took more time. But surprisingly, the gaming learners also underperformed the slideshow group on tests. More time spent learning less deals a significant blow to any intuitive sense that this type of game is good for learning.
Clark and Mayer connect this surprising research result to the recognition of the important, but often unrecognized, difference between psychological and behavioral engagement. Behavioral engagement in an online course simply means that learners are doing things in the course, such as clicking “continue” or dragging and dropping an icon. Psychological engagement means learners are actively thinking about educational content, asking questions, making connections with prior knowledge, or drawing inferences. Behavioral engagement is only important when it leads to psychological engagement—and it doesn’t always do that.
Behavioral engagement can actually decrease psychological engagement, and not just in games. Another experiment reported in Clark and Mayer’s book (Leopold, Sumfleth, and Leutner, 2013) asked one group of students to create verbal or graphic summaries of a science text, while another was provided with verbal or graphic summaries created by the instructor. Whether provided with the verbal or graphic summary, the group that was behaviorally passive did better than the group that was required to produce the summaries themselves. Clark and Mayer speculate that the learner-produced summaries may have been inaccurate or increased cognitive load, interfering with learning.
A recent 2020 study suggests another reason that gamification may not boost learning outcomes: games are supposed to be fun, and learning is generally hard mental work. Diane Sanchez, Marcus Langer, and Rupinder Kaur experimented by offering students either gamified or traditional quizzes before three tests. Their hypothesis was that the students offered the gamified quizzes would complete more of them and hence do better on the tests. (Thankfully, research does support common sense here: more practice does lead to more learning.) Sanchez, Langer, and Kaur found that students who completed more practice did do better on the tests. But overall, the gamified quizzes did not lead to more practice, and, after the first test, there was no difference in learning outcomes between the two groups.
One conclusion (though Sanchez et al do not suggest this) is that some games are addictive because they work a different part of the brain, not the part that needs to learn. If the game simply interrupts what’s fun (finding lost art) with a challenging task (applying electro-magnetic principles), the gamer may pay less attention to the instructional content in order to get back to the fun.
It’s not clear that trying to entice learners to spend more time with educational content simply by welding it to a game makes any more sense than the idea that people will be willing to drive longer if they can text while they drive. To be educationally valuable, games need to be designed to support learning as well as to increase engagement.
While full-blown gamification does not yet seem to improve learning, what does work is student behavioral engagement that promotes psychological engagement. In an experiment with supported drawings, students were provided with (accurate) parts of the diagram and asked to assemble them in the right order. This kind of supported learning activity reduces distractions and cognitive load and focuses the learner’s attention on important aspects of a system, leading to better learning outcomes. While perhaps not as fun as an immersive game, it does ask the learner to ante up some psychological engagement.
So perhaps the best way to teach electro-magnetic principles is to introduce the game of building a battery-operated vehicle. That’s the kind of game kids used to play with these principles.
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