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Learning Through Gaming: What the Research Shows

As we approach the holidays, excitement is building about the new digital devices and games that may lie under the Christmas tree or Hanukah bush. But will that excitement translate into new learning? Much of the current research indicates that the answer is yes -- that gaming and collaboration impact student achievement. You can use this new information to review the benefits of digital gaming with your customers.

In May of this year, SRI issued a report entitled "Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis," which identified gaming as an important tool to support education based on the analysis of 77 peer-reviewed articles that looked at K-16 students studying STEM subjects. The research in the report included a 2006 study by the Federation of American Scientists, a special issue of Science in 2009, and reports by the National Research Council in 2009 and 2010.

Based on its meta-analysis, the SRI report stated that, "When digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies." The report found that students at the median in the control group (no games) could have been raised 12 percent in cognitive learning outcomes if they had received the digital game. In the words of Ed Dieterle, senior program officer for research, measurement, and evaluation for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the report, "For a student sitting in the median who doesn't have a game, his or her learning achievement would have increased by 12 percent if he or she had that game."

The report went on to say that games can enhance student learning and that there is some evidence that digital games contribute to increased intellectual openness and positive core self-evaluation outcomes. These are strong words from a respected source.

Students' desire for collaboration with others, combined with the competitive juices of gaming and simulations, provides a powerful environment for learning. In fact, our Project RED research found that students using technology for online collaboration, including gaming, simulations, and social media, ranks number three in the top nine predictors, or key implementation factors, of a successful technology initiative in schools:

Key Implementation Factors of a Successful Technology Initiative

(Rank order of predictive strength)

  1. Intervention classes: Technology is integrated into every intervention class period.
  2. Change management leadership by principal: Leaders provide time for teacher professional learning and collaboration at least monthly.
  3. Online collaboration: Students use technology daily for online collaboration (games/simulations and social media).
  4. Core subjects: Technology is integrated into core curriculum weekly or more frequently.
  5. Online formative assessments: Assessments are done at least weekly.
  6. Student-computer ratio: Lower ratios improve outcomes.
  7. Virtual field trips: With more frequent use, virtual trips are more powerful. The best schools do these at least monthly.
  8. Search engines: Students use daily.
  9. Principal training: Principals are trained in teacher buy-in, best practices, and technology-transformed learning.

However, it's important that schools follow certain strategies in order to reap the benefits of digital gaming.

  • Schools need to make sure that learning can unfold naturally. I play an online card game every morning before I start work, and I have to weigh the benefits of sacrificing better short-term moves against the satisfaction of matching up cards. Similarly, students working together on a collaborative digital game have to learn to work together and master the skills they need as a team before progressing.

  • Schools need to let students start where they can be successful. Good test-makers always provide an easy question to get students going and boost their confidence. Similarly, digital gaming provides many levels of expertise that can be used to give students an appropriate entry point and allow them to progress gradually with practice and improved skills.

I believe that gaming is an important part of learning even for those of us who are no longer in the classroom. My morning online card game is a soothing routine, and it tells me just how sharp I am that day. It's my own formative assessment. If I can easily figure out the steps to win, then I know I'm ready for high performance. But if I lose on four or five hands in a row, I know I need to step up my thinking and get my "will to win" going. These strategies work for all learners in some fashion.

So encourage your customers to explore digital gaming and the research on its effectiveness. The role of online gaming in building engagement and achievement for our digital-age learners will only continue to grow.

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