How Game-based Learning Engages Struggling Students

BY Kat Shanahan
In our game-based learning program overview, Sun Prairie Area School District educator Mary Headington shared the story of Susan, a student in her class who typically struggled with coursework. Susan was discouraged by her struggles with her coursework and consequently had a hard time believing she was smart. Mary often wrestled with the best way to help Susan, and when she started to use game-based learning in her classroom, something amazing happened.

During gameplay time, Mary was intrigued to see that students would often ask Susan for help. Mary observed that students who typically struggle in class aren’t afraid of failure - so they’re quick to explore, experiment, and immerse themselves in a game-based learning unit. Students who typically excelled in class would struggle because they were unfamiliar with this mode of learning and afraid to do something wrong - they were afraid to fail. This surprising dynamic meant that as gameplay continued, the students at the top of the class would ask Susan for help, an inversion that wasn’t lost on Susan. In fact, it didn’t take long before Susan proudly proclaimed, “I’m smart!” as she returned to her desk after helping a classmate.



Of the many advantages that game-based learning offers, perhaps the most transformative is how games can engage struggling students. In addition to having a higher tolerance for failure, struggling students benefit from a game’s ability to provide a self-paced learning experience and a familiar, comfortable environment.

Failure
Susan’s story is a demonstration of why games resonate with struggling students. With an increased emphasis on standardized testing, failure is pigeonholed as a bad thing in K12 education. However, failure has the ability to create a growth-oriented mindset that will serve students far beyond graduation. Games provide students with a safe space to fail and experiment with content, which can build essential 21st century skills such as critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not to mention fostering a positive identity for students who find a new way to experience the thrill of learning something new.

Personalized Learning Experience
While games create a sense of competition in the classroom, they also allow students to create learning experiences that proceed at their own pace. Depending on how the teacher decides to use games in the classroom, students who participate in gameplay independently are invited to engage with the content until they have fully grasped the concepts and are ready to continue to the next level. They’re not forced to learn at the same speed as their classmates.

Comfortable Environment
In a 2012 Nielsen study of tablet-owning households, 77% of respondents said children under the age of 12 played games on tablets and 57% said that children access educational apps. And that was 5 years ago. Children today are “digital natives,” growing up with games and apps on desktop and mobile devices. The level of digital literacy these children possess can in some cases surpass their individual academic literacies. Games are a comfortable, known space that allows students to fully immerse themselves in the content being presented because they’re already familiar with the medium. Not every student will enter class with the same level of digital literacy, but properly scaffolded, high-quality learning games will offer students an intuitive user interface, supporting their learning efforts.

This is not an exhaustive list of the ways in which games are able to support struggling or underperforming students. This is simply the tip of the iceberg, and we learn more every day from our teacher allies in the field. If you’re using games in your classroom, how have you noticed their impact on struggling or underperforming students?