How can we use games and play to encourage students to become active participants in creative learning?

Pen Holland, Katie Smith, Department of Biology, University of York


The great debate about learning styles rumbles on, but the most important thing in developing life-long learners is not how they learn, but that they learn because they want to. From early babyhood to adulthood, people engage in learning through games and play. Small children begin to understand their world by pushing boundaries and building blocks. Tools such as Lego teach concepts from colour and shape through to sophisticated engineering techniques. Video and table top (board/card) games can establish deep knowledge of subjects such as history (Civilisation, Twilight Struggle) and science (Pandemic).

Harnessing this desire to play in the classroom via games and gamification – the
embedding of game mechanics or motivational techniques in a non-game environment – and using games as a platform on which to practice research skills, offers an opportunity for students to learn in an uninhibited, independent and personalised way, often helping students with anxiety to engage with course material without fear of failure, and thus enhancing the quality of student learning.

We propose a workshop that draws on gamification and pedagogical research to
highlight the key aspects of gamification that interact to engage and motivate the player/student in educational tasks. After a short introductory presentation, delegates will have the opportunity to become active participants in a number of case study games and activities (primarily in the Biosciences, but with general applications). The workshop will finish with audience discussion around the pros, cons and potential applications of this approach for students and educators in HE education.

Chair’s Report

Workshop Panopto video recording (University of York login required)

In this workshop, Pen and Katie showed how they have been using games to aid student learning in the Biology department. Pen gave a short presentation that outlined the general premise of games and play, explaining how good games have four key elements:

  1. Freedom to fail
  2. Rapid feedback
  3. Progression and rewards
  4. Storytelling/journey

Pen pointed out that these four elements also reflect how we want students to experience their learning and thus games can be an effective tool to help students learn. However, it is absolutely paramount that these games are centred around the learning objectives for any learning activity.

During the second half of the workshop, delegates were given the chance to experience some of the games the Biology department have been using. These included board games such as Pandemic where players of this game are specialists in fighting diseases. The aim of the game is to treat the disease but also to research cures for diseases before they spread worldwide. This allows students to learn about different diseases and how the roles of key people (e.g. researchers, operations experts) are needed to successfully fight them. The Biology department also encourage their students to make their own games (e.g. Trees Top Trumps) which requires students to use their research skills to find and record facts on a particular topic.

The workshop ended with a general discussion on how games and play can be used in other departments and the challenges that staff may experience when using this approach.

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