5 Teaching Tips for Professors—From Video Games

Florida Virtual School

Florida Virtual School delivers a 16-week-long American-history course as a video game. Students explore a futuristic city to collect clues, then submit papers about what they have learned.
January 24, 2010

Learning is no game on today's college campuses. It's serious work that many students dread. Yet when those same students play video games like World of Warcraft, they happily spend hours on difficult tasks, and actually learn quite a bit in the process.

Granted, what those gamers learn is how to cast spells and fell dragons, which hardly counts toward a college degree. But Constance Steinkuehler argues that there's a good model of teaching in those popular amusements.

Ms. Steinkuehler, an assistant professor of educational communication and technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, studies video gamers. In one recent case study, she noted how players in a chat room had used complex mathematics to argue for a certain plan of attack against some unruly beast.

"People were actually—no kidding—gathering data on things like the game monster's behavior, putting it in an Excel spreadsheet, and building little mathematical models to try to beat the monster," she told me recently. The game teaches complex problem solving and collaborative learning, Ms. Steinkuehler argues.

She is certainly not the first scholar to go down that road. But she is part of what I would argue is a new, more nuanced view of the possibilities of games in higher education. It is a view that contains specific lessons about what works and what does not.

Call it the third level of video games inside the ivory tower.

Level 1 could be called the Edutainment Years. The earliest educational video games leaned far more toward entertainment than education. Many people who spent hours as kids playing The Oregon Trail or Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? now have no recollection of the factoids taught by the games.

The second level brought the label Serious Games, with scholars designing their own video games about the weightiest of topics and social issues. Award-winning titles include Darfur Is Dying, and Global Conflicts: Palestine.

The problem is that many of the games aren't much fun. That was the complaint of Will Wright, designer of the best-selling Sims games, when I sat down with him last summer to talk about the state of educational games. "Because they're serious subjects," he said, "there's a tendency to treat them too seriously—to say, Let's not be too playful or flippant about this." And isn't fun what makes games attractive to students in the first place?

Hence the need to advance to Level 3, which could be called Smart Gaming. Part of Smart Gaming is recognizing that games are often not the best tools in an educational setting, but when they are, they should carefully balance substance and sport.

At that level, it's possible to deconstruct video games, looking for takeaways that professors can try in their own teaching, whether or not they ever pick up a joystick or click "play."

Here are five lessons I gleaned from recent talks with several leading researchers involved in education and gaming:

1. Give frequent and detailed feedback. Just about every video game prominently displays a scoreboard. It can be incredibly detailed, with tallies of gold grabbed, enemies slain, levels won, shooting accuracy attained, and more. "What kids do in entertainment games," says Jan L. Plass, an associate professor of educational communication and technology at New York University, "is they say, 'I need to work on my stealth or my potion-making skills' or whatever," thanks to that detailed accounting. "It's part of that drive to know yourself—what you're good at and what you're not good at. We really want to know."

Professors in most college classes don't always give feedback as rapid or exhaustive as that. Sure, they return papers and other assignments with number grades and occasional comments, but that hardly resembles those score screens on an Xbox 360 game. "What if, for each of the aspects of the assignment, you got a subgrade," suggests Mr. Plass. "Students could see that 'in these parts I got an A, but in these other parts I got a failing grade.'" That might be more meaningful than a big red C at the top of a paper.

2. Test before going live. The big video-game companies use hundreds, even thousands, of beta testers before ever putting a title on store shelves. That has impressed Mr. Plass, who is a director of NYU's Games for Learning Institute and has worked with Microsoft's video-game group to see how the company tests its popular game Halo.

"One of their concerns is whether the game is too hard and you might die in places that you're not supposed to die," he says, noting that Microsoft runs testers through the game and uses tracking software to identify rough spots, like one area where players routinely fell off a cliff because they couldn't tell it was there.

Mr. Plass says he now tests his center's educational games in a similar way, though with fewer testers than Microsoft uses. "If we find in a particular game that there's a particular problem that most kids fail to solve, even though the problem isn't all that hard, we would try to figure out why that is," he says.

The same concept could be applied to testing online courses, even if they are not in game form.

"I'd freely admit that we don't do enough user-design testing in the online courses we make," says Jared Stein, director of instructional-design services at Utah Valley University, when I ran the idea past him recently. "We tried to implement that as part of our process last year, and we just ran into too many other fires that we had to put out," he says. But it is a good goal for any online program, he adds, and can be as simple as sitting one student down and observing her work through a course.

3. Narrative can answer the question "Why are we learning this?" Stories are powerful ways to engage people, and an immersive story line is one reason players of World of Warcraft work so hard to solve puzzles in the game, argues Ms. Steinkuehler, the Madison assistant professor. On her blog she explains that the player who created the mathematical model delivered it in a playful way that fit the story line of the game, disparaging some spells and character types as he went, rather than simply stating raw numbers.

The idea that stories are powerful motivators drove a recent experiment at the Florida Virtual School, one of the nation's largest online public schools. Last year the school began offering a semester-long course in American history in the form of a 3-D online video game.

Players take on the role of a secret agent and walk around a futuristic city, trying to stop a shadowy group from overthrowing the government. The students collect clues (which take the form of articles about American history) and expose bad guys (the ones who state incorrect facts). "Everything students do is on target with the story," says Jeramy Gatza, a curriculum-innovation specialist for Florida Virtual, who previously taught history in the classroom. "There's no busywork, there's no 'you've got to do this because it's on the syllabus.'"

4. Don't be afraid of fun. Perhaps remembering the worst of "edutainment," many professors still shy away from the idea that a college course can be fun.

"There's an assumption that learning is supposed to be dry and tedious and painful and awful," says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. "If it looks like a game, it immediately gets written off."

That shouldn't be so, says Mr. Wiley. He's clearly not afraid to be playful himself, though. Last year he delivered a course about online learning that was modeled on a role-playing game (think Dungeons and Dragons, where the professor is the dungeon master).

5. Not every subject works as a game. There's a vast graveyard of serious games that have failed, commercially and educationally. "Blindly throwing games at an instructional problem is not a good solution," says Brett E. Shelton, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Utah State University, who has developed some educational games. "I'd actually consider myself to be more of a skeptic rather than an advocate of instructional games, believe it or not."

Educational games, in fact, are actually much harder to design than other teaching approaches because they have to do so many things well.

"It has to be a good game, and you want deep learning with assessment closely married to the learning," says James Paul Gee, who wrote a book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and is part of the Games, Learning, and Society research group at the University of Wisconsin. "It's a double challenge."