Playing Games Can Yield Serious Learning

smiling students

How often do you hear college students say, “that was fun!” on their way out of your classroom? Probably not often enough. Of course, who has time for fun when you have a syllabus packed with serious learning outcomes and one semester to accomplish your goals. Not to diminish the hard work involved in prepping for lectures, but when was the last time you asked yourself: Is my class fun?

Contrary to popular belief that learning gets serious after high school, the college classroom can be a place for fun and games.  An atmosphere of playfulness may work wonders not only for creating community and building student engagement, but also for fostering learning outcomes. This does not necessarily mean using high-tech video games. One simple technique to infuse a little fun into your classroom—and simultaneously test student knowledge of course content—is to refashion academic exercises, such as quizzes or group work, into interactive, competitive games.

One of my favorites is to turn reading questions into quiz show content. For this game, I have my questions on notecards. I divide the class into two teams. Two students (one from each team), face off in front of the class, and each is given a bell. I draw a notecard, and ask a question. The first student to ring the bell, and answer the question correctly, wins the point. Each student gets a turn until all team members have participated. If students are stumped by the question, each may use a “lifeline” (i.e. text a teammate, consult the textbook, etc.). Now imagine your joy at watching college students hunched over a textbook enthusiastically seeking answers to your questions. Priceless.

The catch is that the winning team must always win something (because, alas, student satisfaction from winning while learning is usually not enough). Luckily, a high level of engagement may be inspired by low-stakes prizes. Tallying the correct answers for each team as real quiz grades, or simply passing a bag of candy around to the victors, is enough to inspire healthy competition. Once I used a large bag of Skittles as the prize, and I must admit, I have never seen my students so motivated and engaged.

Quiz shows have many variations. For example, you could use a Jeopardy format by giving students the right answers, and ask them to guess the question, “What is X?”

Another easy game is to turn vocabulary words into a game of Hangman. This works well for courses in which there is a lot of terminology or specific vocabulary required. I divide the class into two teams. On the board, I draw a blank line for each letter of a word from our vocabulary list. Each team takes turns, and I fill in the blanks when the players guess a letter correctly, and draw parts of the “hangman” when players guess wrong. The first team to correctly guess the word, wins. And, as an added bonus, the first team to define the word also wins a point. This game can be done in ten minutes or less, as an icebreaker to start class, and to reinforce vocabulary creatively.

Finally, who doesn’t love a good story? I use a game called Continuous Storytelling, in which one student starts a story, and after a minute, another student takes over for the storyteller, and so on, until every student has contributed. The story may be based on summarizing a reading or building a continuous argument. Notecard prompts offer another variation. Students take turns drawing notecards and speaking extemporaneously on a short prompt in front of the class. Simple rules apply: the student may not say “um,” or must make eye contact with each classmate. If you break the rules, you must start again. Because everyone contributes, this activity fosters community while reducing public speaking anxiety. It also serves as an effective low-stakes exercise for introducing expectations for oral presentations and the importance of demonstrating good speaking and listening skills.

Evidence of learning is often measured by grades, while we underestimate how much affective learning—emotions and feelings—dictate students’ acceptance or rejection of subject matter, and their motivations to learn.  However, “affective learning is an important outcome for students, considering it is directly linked to cognitive learning” (Goodboy, 2009, p.7). One study of educators who routinely incorporate play into adult education and higher education contexts found that playfulness creates a learning environment of “fun, enjoyment, and laughter,” and their students identify cognitive gains in terms of “engagement, retention, and understanding” (Tanis, 2012). Translation: students who have fun in your class may actually learn better, and that’s no laughing matter.

Tanis, D. J. (2012). Exploring play/playfulness and learning in the adult and higher education classroom. (Doctoral Dissertation). ProQuest LLC.

Goodboy, A. K., Martin, M. M., and Bolkan, S. (2009). The development and validation of the student communication satisfaction scale. Communication Education, 58 (3), 372-396.

Kristina Wright is an assistant professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University on the main campus.

This article first appeared on Faculty Focus on May 20, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.