activities for teaching innovation: game-based learning

With most universities continuing to offer distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are doing their best to ease the transition for their students— while keeping student interest levels high in a virtual setting. While it can be a struggle to maintain student engagement through remote classes, introducing game-based learning to your students can kickstart significant increases in retention, collaboration, and creativity. It can be tricky to know how to get started—fortunately, there are faculty leading the way in game-based curriculum with impressive results.

Cheryl Bodnar, Assistant Professor of Experiential Engineering Education at Rowan University and VentureWell Faculty Grant recipient, is a longtime implementer and advocate of game-based learning. Gamification became a go-to pedagogy for Bodnar when she noticed that students quickly engaged in game-based learning; they were hooked while wanting to master the game. Her classroom successes were supported by literature stating that people who experience these types of authentic learning experiences retain information for months and years after.

Clemson University professors Erica Walker and Bre Przestrzelski worked with VentureWell Faculty Grants recipient John DesJardins to transition a Senior Design course from being lecture-based to being game-based. As Walker and Desjardins explain in a new paper in Advances in Engineering Education, students in the game-based course learned the required material equally as well as the students enrolled in the lecture-based course. However, student groups from the game-based course had more positive working relationships within their teams and exhibited more entrepreneurial-related skills. Visit to learn more about the innovative game-based classes developed at Clemson University.

We spoke with these professors about best practices for game-based learning in the classroom. Below is a highlight of their key learnings and recommendations.

collaborate with game designers or adopt existing games

Educators shouldn’t feel pressure to reinvent the wheel when it comes to game-based learning for the classroom. One approach is partnering with professional game designers when incorporating games into a course. “Educators have a clear understanding of learning objectives, but don’t necessarily know what makes a game successful,” said Bodnar. “That’s why games they create can sometimes feel like work rather than fun.”

Building partnerships with professional game designers can really help – and designers are typically very happy to help. Some examples of educational game developers include MIT’s Serious Games LabKurt SquireSchell GamesCarnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative, and Filament Games. For instance, Bodnar has partnered with Filament Games to design a new game focused on process safety decision making. Process safety decision making refers to decisions that chemical plant operators or engineers may need to make about their safety and operational systems, ranging from personal protective equipment to preventive maintenance procedures. According to Bodnar, the partnership has worked very well since her research team provides technical knowledge while Filament Games ensures that the final product meets the criteria for a game—a fun and engaging experience for all players.

Even if an educator has experience integrating games, Bodnar recommends looking for and adopting or adapting a game that already exists. “There are already many tried and true games available on the market,” said Bodnar. For a starter kit, she recommends the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Games Toolkit, which was created as part of the Ideas at Play Workshop at the VentureWell OPEN 2015 conference.

consider learning objectives while developing game-based curriculum

Game-based learning is only beneficial if it relates to desired course outcomes. Bodnar always considers the learning objectives when incorporating games into the curriculum. The professors from Clemson used a Design Canvas to identify learning objectives for each lecture. “These are the points where the instructor might say ‘if you remember one thing from today, this would be it,’” said Walker.

The study by Walker and Desjardins, which focused on a senior design course in bioengineering, found that students often chose design projects based on personal appeal without considering best-fit elements in a comprehensive way. By using a design canvas, the professors were able to clearly distinguish the core class objective of introducing ‘Needs Filtering and Screening’ to their students. By ensuring you define and communicate key takeaways, you can provide students with a through-line and reference point during game-play and reflection.

Walker also suggests using games as a way to discreetly combine difficult course content with opportunities to practice different skills in a low-stakes, engaging environment. “Games can trick students into learning while they engage with the material,” said Walker. “The students benefit from experiencing an interactive classroom in which they actually learn and apply material rather than just memorize it for an exam.”

involve students in game-based learning through the design of their own game

Bodnar suggests another game-based learning method: have students build their own game around a specific course topic or principle.  Bodnar has employed this approach in technical-based engineering classes such as Reactive Process Engineering and in more design-focused classes such as Junior Engineering Clinic.  Most recently she worked with a student group that developed a game to teach middle school students about engineering, the role women can serve in this field, and potential career pathways within engineering.  The results of this work were presented at the American Society for Engineering Education conference and can be viewed here.

If educators would like to use this approach, Bodnar has created and shared a document about her methods.  In the materials, Bodnar describes the type of context where these projects can be helpful, highlights learning objectives educators could consider applying to the project, and provides a series of instructor tips and resources that would help with immediate integration of a game design project into existing coursework.

use game-based learning to boost students’ skills in other areas

Game-based courses also offer students the opportunity to learn or hone critical soft skills, which can be difficult to develop in the context of an engineering class. The study by Walker and Desjardins found that in addition to teaching content-based knowledge, game-based learning can promote the development of 21st century skills such as innovation, creativity, life-long learning and problem-solving. These skills — called ‘21st-century skills’ — are crucial to entrepreneurial success, particularly within STEM fields.

You can create opportunities for students to develop soft skills in a few ways. Before game-play begins, guide students through a content review and preparation so that they understand the intentions and goals of each class. You can also close class time with guided group reflections on each student’s experience and progress on the learning objectives; students can also write individual reflections after class to further ingrain their takeaways from the game experience.

“We saw students from the game-based classroom develop more positive working relationships within their teams,” said Walker. “Interviews with those students also revealed increased self-efficacy in areas relating to entrepreneurship and 21st century skills such as teamwork, perseverance, communication, and leadership.”

plan when and how to integrate a game into the classroom

It’s important to think about when and how to integrate games into a course to best meet specific learning objectives. For example, Bodnar sometimes introduces a game as an icebreaker to lead into a specific subject without sharing topic specifics with the students; it’s only in the debrief with the students that the topic is revealed. She also incorporates a game in the middle of the class to break things up and reinforce learning that has already occurred on a specific topic.

For the Clemson course, Walker and Przestrzelski faced the challenge of keeping many students engaged in large classrooms. To help determine the right time to incorporate a game-intensive lesson into the class, the professors met weekly to address potential issues that may come up during the game play. In Walker and Desjardins’ study, the educators used the BIOE Design Canvas, adapted from the Game Design Canvas, to organize class plans and objectives. Incorporating regular educator meetups into the course schedule allows the faculty team to collaboratively brainstorm class facilitation plans and keep students on track.

debrief with students and faculty regularly

Successful game-based courses are often the result of an iterative design process. A key component of the process is debriefing with students and faculty. A debrief with students is important for two reasons: it’s helpful for them to process their learnings, and it’s insightful for instructors to hear how the students benefited (or didn’t benefit) from the experience.

Walker and Przestrzelski also gained insights from weekly reflection time regarding what worked and what to do differently next time. That included soliciting feedback from students to help iterate and improve game plans. “We conducted several rounds of feedback and iteration to ensure that the games actually addressed teaching objectives and prepared the students for meeting the course requirements and doing well on the exams,” said Walker.

Game-based learning can help educators engage today’s increasingly tech-distracted students. Before introducing games into a learning environment, try to find or design the right game that aligns with the teaching objectives. Use game-based learning as an opportunity to help students develop other skills they normally wouldn’t gain in a lecture-based classroom. Ensure a successful integration of games into the classroom by soliciting feedback from students and other faculty to help fine tune the curriculum or the teaching process.

Looking for more classroom exercises? Check out these resources:

faculty online learning series

5 virtual classroom exercises to keep students engaged

6 strategies for teaching capstone design remotely

Content from this post originally appeared in two LinkedIn articles by VentureWell Senior Program Officer, Victoria MatthewUsing Game-Based Learning to Increase Student Engagement and How and Why to Integrate Game-Based Learning into Your Classes.

VentureWell Course and Program Grants provide up to $30,000 to faculty or staff with innovative ideas to help students hone the skills needed to create novel STEM-based inventions and bring their ideas to market.

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