Bringing games into the classroom can be a great way to get students excited about learning. When they’re designed to enable teacher guidance and to take advantage of things games do well—such as encouraging persistence and offering multiple paths to success—they can do a lot more than simply boost engagement.
Here are five questions to ask when considering educational software to ensure it offers meaningful learning experiences for your students.
1) Are there multiple ways for students to solve problems?
If a teacher gives a student a math worksheet, there are limits to how they can find the solution. In a well-designed game, however, there are no restraints, and students can think their way through it by testing and discovering.
Back when I was teaching in the classroom, the games we had were on floppy disks. They offered a problem, the student submitted a solution, the computer told them they were right or wrong, and that was the end of it. Fortunately, games are much more sophisticated these days.
Look for games that not only offer multiple ways to arrive at a correct answer, but also provide useful feedback to inform future attempts.
2) Does it enable teachers to track students’ progress?
Hand in hand with the self-paced, multisolution nature of games is the fact that students have the opportunity to figure out the answer on their own. Children know intuitively that there is a solution to the game—no one designs a game that can’t be won, after all—so they’re primed to persist through failures and use the game’s feedback to figure out new approaches.
To maximize efficiency, the gameplay—the fun!—should be integrated with the learning rather than added on top.
Even knowing that there is an answer to be found, students sometimes get too frustrated after repeated failure to make progress and need a teacher’s help talking it through. A good learning game should give teachers an indication of where their students are, such as how many attempts they’ve made at a solution. Teachers can then set their own thresholds for helping. They may want to see, for example, eight attempts before they offer guidance.
3) Is it lean and focused on learning?
One challenge with educational games is students’ expectations of what games include. Students often want an avatar they can customize, for example. An avatar may get students excited about logging into the software, but it doesn’t help them learn the material or even get them engaged in the learning itself.
As every teacher knows, class time is a precious and limited commodity. If students are using an educational game for 20 minutes each day, two minutes spent customizing their avatar is 10% of their learning time in that game. Add in the two minutes of getting the computers off the cart and everyone logged in, and you’ve lost 20% of the time students could have been learning.
When looking at educational games, be sure they’re lean and focused on learning. To maximize efficiency, the gameplay—the fun!—should be integrated with the learning rather than added on top.
4) Can teachers and students get started quickly?
In user experience design, we talk about the usage maturity matrix, which describes what beginner, intermediate and advanced users can do with a program. New users should be able to participate in the basic functions of a program with little or no training, while advanced users should be able to accomplish much more.
With an educational classroom game, a teacher who is just beginning to use the software should be able to log in, get kids into class, view actionable data, and then take action on what the software tells them.
As they get more comfortable with a program, they may want to look at data about curricular or standards coverage and deviate from the program’s prescribed schedule, so that they can cover material in a different order. The information they need to take those actions should be easily discoverable within the program itself, so that they can progress to advanced usage without a lot of external training.
Look for software that can be used right out of the box and that keeps advanced features no more than a click away, so they’re easy to see and begin using.
5) How will the ed tech features help students and educators?
Just as collecting data for its own sake can lead to a mountain of information that actually makes the useful data harder to find and use, a piece of software with too many features can become bloated and difficult to use. If there are any features you think are must-haves, ask yourself why. How will those features enable your teachers to teach and your students to learn?
Games can be an effective addition to the classroom, but they need to be playfully focused on learning, designed to encourage persistence, and capable of letting teachers know when it’s time for them to do what they do best: guide their students.
Alesha Arp, a former special education teacher, is the senior user experience researcher at MIND Research Institute.