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As many of you know, I use Reacting to the Past games in some form in most of my classes. In my First Year Seminar, I use three of these highly immersive role-playing games. In that 1000-level class for first year students, they write at least 21 pages of work, all of it researched with proper citations. They also must learn to speak effectively and persuasively - nearly every class period. And they have a lot of fun doing it.

And yet here it is, the end of the semester, and I sit with doubts: Did they learn? And did they even though they clearly also enjoyed the course?

I know that they are learning because there are many assessments that show that Reacting classes are exceptional ways to get students to have more empathy for others, to read and write critically, to learn oral communication skills, to research proficiently and to learn how to cite correctly. And there is a new volume of essays in the book Playing to Learn, edited by C. Edward Watson and Thomas Chase Hagood, that features essays from several instructors about how they have used this innovative pedagogy in their classes. I hope to read it over the upcoming break between semesters. And I have assessments for the other innovative activities I assign in my classes.

For instance, coming out in 2018 is my chapter entitled "Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art," which is chapter 8 in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity. In this chapter I discuss the innovative strategies of active learning that I employed for the duration of the fall semester of 2015 in my Roman art course. And I've continued to chronicle my active learning exercises employed in classes here on my blog, at invited workshops on the topic, and been asked to deliver the keynote address on the topic of active learning at Texas Lutheran University's Engaging Pedagogy Conference this coming May (2018).

And yet, it is the end of each semester, and once again I have these troublesome thoughts: Did they learn? Was it rigorous? Did they work hard enough?

The learning took place. I have assessments that show that. So to me it's a bit sad that fun in the classroom is so circumspect and that some faculty (raises hand!) feel sheepish at the concept that fun and learning can coexist. I hope there can be a way that we can collectively move beyond this. Students deserve to enjoy their classes and learn at the same time.

Is that notion really so novel? A shame that it seems to be.

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In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

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He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?

 

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