Educational video games:
A guide for the science-minded
© 2010 - 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Educational video games are big business.
But do they work?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much rigorous research to answer that question, particularly when it comes to games aimed at children.
One small survey has reported that kids who played educational games were less likely to suffer from attention problems at school. This contrasted with kids who played violent and/or arcade-like video games. Kids who played these non-academic games were more likely to have attention problems (Hastings et al 2009).
Other research suggests that playing "action" video games can improve visual-spatial skills. And there is evidence that a brief session of gaming can enhance a student's ability to learn science topics that are visual-spatial in nature.
In a recent experiment on 60 undergraduates, Christopher Sanchez randomly assigned students to play either a computer word game or Halo: Combat Evolved, an action game of the type that has been linked with improvements in visuospatial ability.After 25 minutes of play, students read a complex article about plate tectonics, and then were tested on their understanding of the material by writing an essay entitled, "What caused Mt. St. Helens to erupt?" Although participants rated both computer games as equally fun, one game was linked with better performance on the essay tests. Students assigned to play Halo showed a stronger grasp of the scientific concepts (Sanchez 2012).
There is also reason to think that some video games encourage kids to be helpful and friendly.
What about overall scholastic aptitude? There are intriguing hints that certain computer-based games can boost working memory capacity --a basic ingredient of intelligence and academic success.Will future research report more good news? I think so. It seems likely that--eventually--parents will find a wide range of researcher-tested video games that really do help kids learn.
Why educational video games are a promising medium
It makes sense that computer games could be effective teaching aids. As Merrilea Mayo has argued, the video game format has many advantages over the old-fashioned school lecture.
- Games can break down complex tasks, guiding players through a series of steps
- Learners can control their navigation of the games.
- Games can give learners immediate and continuous feedback
- Games can be adapted to the individual pace of the learner
- Game-based tasks may require students to formulate hypotheses and experiment
Each of these characteristics has been linked with better learning outcomes (Mayo 2009).
And--as James Paul Gee points out—the popularity of difficult, complex video games demonstrates that programmers have achieved what many traditional approaches to education have failed to do. They’ve hit on “profoundly good methods of getting people to learn and to enjoy learning" (Gee 2005).
But for now, the trick is finding quality educational games for kids. In the worst case scenario, a video game doesn’t just fail to teach the right lessons. It actually teaches the wrong lessons.
Be wary of poorly-designed educational video games
For instance, researchers have complained about a computer game--used in schools--that teaches misinformation about shapes (Clements and Sarama 2000). According to this game, if you tilt a square on its vertex, it’s no longer a square. It’s a diamond!
Similarly, I’ve seen “educational" games for kids that teach bad lessons about arithmetic. In one game, kids are asked to select two groups of fish to create a new sum—e.g., 4 fish + 4 fish = 8 fish.
The problem? It seems that the authors were lazy, and didn’t anticipate all the possible ways that kids might combine fish. So only some combinations—like (4 + 4) and (3 +5)—are permitted. If your child wants to add (1+7), that’s not possible.
Other games add only superficial educational elements, like the “math" action games that ask kids to “shoot down" certain numbers.
More generally, many electronic “educational" games for kids fail to provide the flexible feedback that players need to learn.
But that’s not a failure of the medium. That’s a failure of the industry to create high-quality games. What about the good stuff?
Well-designed educational video games: A look at the future of instruction?
Sasha Barab and colleagues have created Quest Atlantis, a 3-D multi-user virtual environment where school kids (aged 9-16) learn lessons in writing, math, biology, space science, and social studies.
In Quest Atlantis, players are immersed in a virtual world. Each player has a persona, or avatar, that can interact with other characters.
Players become protagonists in a series of interactive tasks. They encounter challenges—like a polluted river that needs cleaning up—and explore solutions. Realistic simulations allow kids to experience the consequences of their decisions—and revise their solutions accordingly (Barab et al 2004).
Does the game work? Preliminary research suggests it does. For example, in one recent study, Barab and colleagues divided students into three groups (Barab et al 2009).
- One group learned a lesson by reading a 38-page on-screen textbook
- One group learned by playing a simple, 2-D, interactive video game that imparted information through a third-person narrative
- One group learned by playing the “full immersion" Quest Atlantis game—complete with avatar and 3-D simulations
Afterwards, students were given several tests, including multiple choice questions and an open-ended critical thinking task that required students to apply their knowledge to a new problem.
The students who learned by playing educational video games performed better than the students who learned from the electronic textbook. And the students who had played the 3-D, “full immersion" game outperformed all others in the critical thinking task.
Will educational games replace classroom instruction?
Not likely. Quest Atlantis is designed to be used in the classroom, where students can interact on and off-screen with each other and their teachers. But the whole point of projects like Quest Atlantis is to replace the old fashioned “sit and listen to the lecture" approach with a more interactive style of learning.
Finding good educational games
Quest Atlantis is a large project, with about 20,000 users worldwide. But membership is currently limited to students who are enrolled at participating schools. Individuals can’t subscribe or buy copies of the game. If you want your child to experience Quest Atlantis, you might try lobbying your school to join the project.
Meanwhile, there are other educational video games worth playing.
Whyville is a virtual world featuring games and activities for kids aged 8-14. Players create avatars and navigate the world as they wish. It looks a bit like WebKinz, but the games teach academic subjects like art history, civics, economics and ocean science. It’s also free.
You’ll also find free educational video games at the NASA website. The games there are mostly quick, casual games of logic, memory, or math.
Finally, check out the Nobel prize organization's free educational video games. Games include “The Diabetic Dog Game" (which teaches kids about caring for someone with diabetes) and “Lord of the Flies" based on the novel by William Golding.
References: Educational video games
Barab SA, Scott B, Siyahhan S, Goldstone R, Ingram-Goble A, Zuiker S, and Warren S. 2009. Transformational play as a curricular scaffold: Using videogames to support science education. Journal of Science Education and Technology 18: 305-320.
Barab SA, Gresalfi M, and Arici A. 2004. Why educators should care about games. Educational Leadership 67(1): 76-80. Behav Res Methods Instrum Comput. 36(2):234-40.
Engage Students in Critical Thinking Activities With These Great Applications
The most important gift that educators can give to students is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking is the ability to take information, then instead of simply memorizing it…
- Analyzing it
- Drawing Conclusions
- Finding Practical Applications
- Integrating That Information With Other Information
- Forming Opinions Based on Information And Defending Those Opinions With Data
- Recognizing The Difference Between Good Information And Bad Information
- Summarizing And Synthesizing Information
- Strategizing And Collaborating
Students who are taught good critical thinking skills grow into life long learners, productive employees, and active and engaged citizens. They also tend to make better life decisions. The key to getting students to pick up these important skills is to keep them engaged in the learning process. Web based technology tools can be a great tool to help facilitate student engagement.
Take a look at these 10 tools and resources for using technology to teach critical thinking skills (we've also noted the skills they can help teach!).
1. Mind Meister
This is a mind mapping app that can be used both in the classroom and at home to help students develop higher level thinking skills by helping them to:
- See How Various Topics Relate to One Another
- Take Insightful Notes
- Engage and Collaborate With Other Students
- Break Complex Concepts Down Into Simpler Chunks
- Present Their Thoughts And Ideas to Others
In additon to these things, Mind Meister works for students with a variety of learning styles and can be used by children who face learning challenges.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered: Strategizing and Collaborating, Analyzing, and Drawing Conclusions
2. Neo K12 FlowChart Games
FlowChart Games are a simple but very enjoyable set of games that students can play to learn more about a variety of topics. These include, the phases of the moon, various biological life cycles, food chains, photosynthesis, the various organ systems of the human body, and much more. Students are presented with incomplete flowcharts representing whatever topic they are exploring. They are then required to drag and drop the missing elements of the flowchart to the right position. This helps students to learn about sequencing, cause and effect, and how multiple small elements make up a large process or phenomenon.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Summarizing and Synthesizing Information
3. Civilization V
This is the 5th edition of the extremely popular online strategy game. While many people might balk at the idea of using video games in education (or at least those that are associated with recreational game play), the truth is that that playing strategy games absolutely helps build critical thinking skills. Students playing Civilization V must take the human civilization from the time that man first walked the earth to future times. This includes solving social justice problems, discovering and using new technologies, and interacting with important historical figures.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Strategizing and Collaborating, Planning, Analyzing, and Drawing Conclusions
If students are not interested and engaged, they are lost. They may phone it in when it comes to doing homework and studying to pass tests, but they are not going to get the things that they need out of the learning process. One way to get them engaged is through the use of augmented reality. Augmented reality uses trigger images and smart device technology to create augmented learning experiences that might include 360 degree environments, videos, 3D modeling, videos, and animations. Imagine a biology student being given the ability to examine the human brain from every possible angle. How helpful would it be for a student who is struggling with a concept while doing homework to be able to aim their tablet at an image on a worksheet and watch a video of their teacher giving them advice on the assignment? AugThat provides educators with a series of AR enhanced lessons that can be used in the classroom to create a more engaging learning experience.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Summarizing and Synthesizing Information, Analyzing and Drawing Conclusions
One important part of developing critical thinking skills is learning to think with empathy and to consider the views, experiences, and perspectives of others before drawing conclusions. Spent is an online game that plays a bit like a text based, choose your own adventure game from the eighties or nineties. The hook is that students playing the game play the role of somebody who is unemployed and homeless who must find a new job and get their lives back on track. Students gain insights into the social justice issue of poverty while also learning problem solving skills as they make decisions throughout the game.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Planning, Summarizing and Synthesing Information, Finding Practical Applications, Learning the Difference Between Good Information and Bad Information
6. Whooo’s Reading
If educators do nothing else to encourage students to pick up the ability to think critically, getting children to develop a love of learning is absolutely key. Whooo’s reading is an online reading program that teachers can implement to encourage students to read. The program provides students with coins as rewards for meeting reading goals that can be used to customize their avatar. In addition to this, students also have access to a fun, interactive newsfeed. Unlike other programs where students simply log their reading time or pages, teachers can be sure that students are understanding concepts by having students answer questions about what they have been reading.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Analyzing and Drawing Conclusions, Forming Opinions and Learning to Defend Those Opinions, Learning to Recognize the Difference Between Good Information and Bad Information
7. Discovery Education’s Puzzlemaker
This is a free, online crossword puzzle maker that teachers and students can use to create word puzzles on a variety of subjects. Sometimes, when students are struggling to learn concepts, they can be helped by reversing things and finding ways to teach and challenge others. By coming up with hints and answers, students can gain new insights. In addition to this, teachers can also use the puzzlemaker to create crossword puzzles that challenge students to employ higher level thought processes to interpret clues and solve those puzzles. When students gain the confidence to challenge other students with their puzzles, they might just gain important leadership skills.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Summarizing and Synthesizing Information, Finding Practical Applications, Drawing Conclusions
Edmodo is a social networking sight that has been created to provide students and teachers with all of the appealing elements of social media such as sharing thoughts and ideas, engaging in conversations, and collaborating. All of the less appropriate elements have been removed. As a result, students and teachers can engage in conversations, share ideas, and work with one another on group projects. Edmodo even gives kids means to interact with their instructors and to seek advice on assignments and in classroom lessons.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Strategizing and Collaborating, Planning, Forming Opinions Based on Information and Defending Them With Data.
9. Google Docs
This isn’t an educational tool per se. However, Google Docs and other related tools provided by Google are excellent for for students when it comes to sharing information and collaborating with one another. Collaboration is a key element in learning critical thinking skills because students are able to receive input from their peers on their ideas and thoughts. The Google suite which also includes Google slides has built in tools that allow students to research topics without exiting the documents that they are working on.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Strategizing And Collaborating
Socrative is an interactive app that teachers can use to poll students, create quizzes on the fly, and even create formative assessments. Teachers simply create a quiz or question using Socrative’s teacher dashboard. Then, the students log in and select, or type in the correct answer. The teacher can then take the answers and use them to engage the students in further discussions about what they have learned and whether or not they are effectively applying critical thinking skills. The resulting discussion can result in a great exchange of ideas and further analysis.
Critical Thinking Areas Covered:Forming Opinions Based on Information and Defending Them with Data, Planning and Strategizing, Analyzing.
As long as educators are willing to keep an open mind and focus on what keeps kids interested and engaged, technology can be used to teach critical thinking skills. The ten apps listed above are great resources for teachers who want their students to reap the benefits of becoming curious individuals with the ability to think for themselves.