Game-Based Learning and the Quest for Student Engagement

What is game-based learning and why is it important?

November 21, 2019 |


A new strategy in the field of education is making a splash. It’s called game-based learning, and students and professors alike are jumping on board. The way we learn has evolved, keeping up with changing attitudes, advancements in technology, and now, gaming. In more and more classrooms across the nation, games are becoming good. Like other schools and universities, Minnesota State University, Mankato is working to incorporate game-based learning into the student experience as part of the movement toward classroom innovation.

One of the biggest goals for educators is higher student engagement. This begins with teachers and professors. At Minnesota State Mankato, IT Solutions’ Instructional Design Services is comprised of a team dedicated to helping professors improve their courses to benefit student learning. Carrie Miller, Ph.D., is an Instructional Designer who specializes in helping both professors and teaching assistants learn how to create effective courses. She encourages them to develop good teaching practices and guides them in incorporating technology into their classrooms. Three years ago, Dr. Miller and her team began their work on game-based learning and are continuing to push the movement forward with the goal of boosting student success.

Another concept that goes along with game-based learning is something called gamification. It’s important to note the difference between these two terms, as they are related but not interchangeable. Gamification is transforming something that isn’t necessarily enjoyable into something that is fun by implementing features of games. You can do this with anything! Many exercise and nutrition apps have become incredibly popular because of this simple format. Users are motivated with storylines, achievements, badges, and reminders. People are more likely to engage with activities they might typically avoid if the concept is turned into a game.

Game-based learning is applying this technique to a learning environment. The game is integrated into the course in such a way that engagement and overall learning is enhanced. The key is to integrate fun while making sure that the game's purpose is to help students learn. Game-based learning can be used anywhere, not just classrooms. It can come in many different forms, and the amount of gamification that is applied can be varied as well. Instructors can incorporate premade games or make up their own. Board games, video games, card games, acting games – anything! Instructors can choose to frame the whole course as one continuous game, or they can sprinkle smaller gaming experiences here and there throughout the semester. The adaptability is what makes it so flexible and innovative.

This all sounds like fun, but how exactly does game-based learning benefit students? Since game-based learning is a relatively new field within the last few years, it’s still developing. Experts haven’t yet gotten the chance to conduct substantial research on the direct effects of games on students’ learning. Even though the official verdict is still out, Dr. Miller has no doubt that games can be beneficial to students if implemented correctly. She says that motivation and engagement are two key pieces that are known to improve success in learning. Newer generations of students are finding motivation to learn in different ways, and games are something many of them can relate to. "Games are part of our culture. Play is valuable, play frees up our brain,” Dr. Miller says. It builds community, fosters teamwork, and reduces stress. She notes that game-based learning can be particularly beneficial for courses in which students experience frustration and find themselves asking, “why do I have to know this?” Game-based learning adds creativity and gives students a reason to continue – instead of disengaging, they want to participate.

It’s no surprise that students start to enjoy learning when it becomes fun. This has been shown at our University in students’ and professors’ experience in game-based learning curriculums. In August 2018, Dr. Miller teamed up with the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Jennifer Veltsos, Ph.D. Dr. Veltsos and Dr. Miller put together a cohort of 14 Minnesota State Mankato faculty members from various departments. These faculty members got the chance to participate in a year-long workshop course on game-based learning. Taught by Dr. Veltsos and Dr. Miller, the participants learned the ins and outs of game-based learning and were challenged to apply the techniques in their own courses. During the first semester, participants worked on developing games for use in their classrooms. Then, the big test! Would the games be successful with students? During the second semester, the faculty members implemented their game-based learning curriculum within their classes. At the end of the semester, the results were positive – students were loving the game-based format!

Dr. Jeffrey Pribyl has been teaching at Minnesota State Mankato for just over thirty years and is a supporter of game-based learning since participating in Dr. Veltsos’ and Dr. Miller’s workshop. Dr. Pribyl is a professor in the Chemistry and Geology Department and his incorporation of game-based learning during the spring 2019 semester proved successful with his chemistry students. Dr. Pribyl incorporated card games into his Chemistry 100: Chemistry in Society course curriculum. The card games helped students memorize how to name and write formulas for binary and organic compounds. Dr. Pribyl provided rules for the card games, but he found that some students naturally took it upon themselves to create their own personalized rules. Because of the flexible nature of game-based learning, students were able to use the cards as a learning tool in the ways that fit them best. 

Dr. Pribyl’s students reacted positively overall and his classroom was filled with productive chatter as they engaged in gamified learning of chemistry concepts. With game-based learning, “...students are actively engaged in the construction and use of their knowledge,” he says. After the success of the spring semester, this fall Dr. Pribyl has decided to continue using the card games in Chemistry 100 and to expand them into his Chemistry 191 course as well.As for his thoughts on the game-based learning initiative at Minnesota State Mankato, Dr. Pribyl says, “there are wonderful faculty members from across our university community committed to helping our students learn by looking at novel ways to engage students in our classrooms.”

Dr. Rachelle Fuller, another participant in Dr. Veltsos’ and Dr. Miller’s game-based learning workshop, has also experienced success in her gamified courses. Dr. Fuller is currently the department chair of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Services (RPLS) and is in her 14th year at Minnesota State Mankato. She teaches a variety of RPLS courses, including Recreation Leadership and Programming in Outdoor Settings. Because of her previous knowledge of game-based learning and her own personal interest in games, Dr. Fuller has widely implemented gaming activities in her teaching curriculum in past years even before participating in the workshop. “Game-based learning is a natural fit in the RPLS field, but there are always ways to improve and grow in my own techniques,” says Dr. Fuller. For the workshop, she created an immersive role-playing game that she incorporated into her spring 2019 Human Resource Management in RPLS course. The goal of the game was to help students better understand the concepts of resource allocation and decision making. Groups of students, referred to within the game as “units,” were challenged to complete tasks by managing assets like workers, time, and money.

Overall, Dr. Fuller says the majority of her students liked the game-based learning experience and were able to gain a clearer understanding of course concepts as a result. The experience also prompted a well-rounded discussion among her and her students afterwards. Taking the feedback from the spring 2019 semester, Dr. Fuller plans to improve her game and continue using it in her spring 2020 course. As for her takeaway from the whole experience, she says, “.... the workshop helped support my conviction that game-based learning is an effective method. For students, I think that game-based learning makes them part of the learning that many traditional methods do not.” She believes that game-based learning has been beneficial to student learning in her past courses and she looks forward to the possibilities of continuing to use it in the future. It allows “[students] to be active participants rather than passive receptacles,” Dr. Fuller adds.


Though there are many positive testimonials from professors, the classroom isn’t the only place that students are exposed to game-based learning at our University. Student workers and other employees at Minnesota State Mankato’s IT Solutions currently participate in an interactive, game-based D2L course as part of their job training. Developed by Dr. Miller and a team of other specialists, Space Camp is an online training course that has helped aid standardization in the new employee training process for IT Solutions. The specific goal was tocreate a place where new employees could go to get more familiar with IT Solutions and to learn important informationrelating to their job while also being engaged through gamification. Space Camp was test launched at the end of 2015 with a handful of employees, which resulted insome revisions before it was officially launched to new employees in 2016. Since then, updates have been made and more features have been added, including the character Space Sam, who helps guide users through modules and provides helpful tips to enhance understanding.

Though game-based learning has already proven that it promotes curiosity, participation, and an overall more positive atmosphere, it does have its skeptics. With faculty, Dr. Miller has seen a split down the middle, with about half willing to test game-based learning in their classrooms and half feeling less inclined to try it. She speculates that those who are hesitant to adopt game-based learning may associate it with childishness or believe it isn’t useful. Their past gaming experiences may have been negative or perhaps games are just not their thing at all. To combat misconceptions of game-based learning, Dr. Miller stresses the importance of using games in a way that is relevant to the course, meaningful to students, and helpful to the learning process. There are small steps that can be taken to introduce game-based learning and demonstrate its benefits. A great example is Kahoot!, which is an online tool that allows instructors to create interactive quizzes that students can play together in real time from their own devices. The platform has been massively popular in classrooms of all ages, and it's a simple and low-barrier way to introduce instructors and students to game-based learning. 

With the continuing growth and significance of the gaming industry and the evolving nature of student learning, game-based learning is sure to be increasingly influential in the field of education in the coming years. Leading the way to student success through innovation and technology is a priority at Minnesota State Mankato and our quest for better engagement in the classroom is one that is constantly changing and progressing. Game-based learning may be the key that students and professors have been looking for to help unlock the full potential of today’s young learners.


Faculty, Interested in Game-Based Learning for Your Classroom?

Visit our Instructional Design website or contact Carrie Miller.


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