User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Games or Worksheets: Is there really a question about the choice?

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I work part time with gifted elementary students at two Title 1 schools where most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches; and where they and/or their parents are learning English as a second language. What I quickly discovered about my students was that many were lacking in foundational skills in ELA and in math. Sadly, the instructional method used by way too many schools, especially those considered low performing like mine, is to give students lots of worksheets to teach such skills. I don’t like worksheets. I didn’t like them when I was an elementary student and don’t know too many elementary students who say, “I love doing worksheets.”

I have been using games in my classrooms (elementary and higher education) for decades. My use of games has included board games, team building and cooperative games, and more recently, video games. In order to help my gifted students learn some of the foundational skills, I integrate a variety of these games. This post is split into two parts:

  • Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning
  • Example Games Used to Teach and Reinforce

Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning

There has been a lot written about using games for learning. Research generally supports their use for learning:

Across 57 studies that compared teaching with a game to using other instructional tools, incorporating a game was more effective (SD .33). Using a game improved cognitive learning outcomes along with intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes. Researchers looking at other collections of studies have found that games help students retain what they’ve learned.

I have written about the teacher as an ethnographer and the teacher as a reflective practitioner. In line with these beliefs, I have made my own personal observations about using games with gifted elementary students at low performing schools.

The Desire to Win is a Motivator

One of the biggest draw in the use of games is that students want to build their skills in order to win the game. Most, if not all, of my students embrace and engage in competitive games with the goal of winning. The need to win is a strong motivator; and to win they need to develop those skills. Even in group team building and cooperative learning, learning basic skills in order to be successful is a great motivator for learning basic skills. The same can’t be said of worksheets. The major reward for completing a worksheet is a grade from the teacher. For many students, this type of reward is not all that motivating.

A Sense of Fun and Play

When games are used for learning, excitement and joy become part of the learning process. My learners’ excitement is seen with their squeals of joy, big smiles on their faces, and jumping out of their seats when they succeed in the games.  Doing worksheets is not fun and they do not elicit playful responses. They is limited joy in learning through worksheets.

Learning Doesn’t Feel Contrived, Pushed, nor Painful

Most children play games and many adults do so, too. Games seem to be part of human existence.  Thus, when games are introduced into the learning environment, they feel natural to the learners. On the other hand, worksheets are not part of learners’ lives outside of the classroom. This translates into worksheets feeling contrived and pushed. Doing worksheets is often painful for the learners.

Noise is Expected

Games often include vocal elements. Learner voices and noise are expected and accepted when games are played. The opposite is true for doing worksheets. The expectation is that there is silence in the classroom while students work through their worksheets.

Increased and Engaging Repetition of Concepts

In general, repetition is needed to gain and remember basic skills. Usually this occurs through memorizing and repeating core skills. Games often offer the repetition of basic skills in a fun way as learners work towards completing the game challenges. Doing multiple worksheets can provide the repetition but not the engagement.

Learners Spontaneously Help One Another

Even in games that ask learners compete (see the second part of this post for examples), they often help one another out when one of their peers get stuck. This type of peer assistance is not promoted, may even be seen as cheating when students are completing worksheets.

Natural, Immediate, and Continual Formative Assessment

Most games offer continual feedback on learners’ performances. Games provide immediate feedback about the degree of success with a challenge as this function is built into the game mechanics. The same is not true for worksheets. The teacher is the one who often reviews and grades the worksheet. Feedback does not tend to be immediate nor continual with the use of worksheets.

Increased Engagement

The above characteristics equal increased engagement, and increased engagement often means increased learning. I have to wonder if one of the reasons my learners didn’t develop foundational skills is that they weren’t engaged in their learning processes; that they just went through the motions of doing the worksheets.

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Examples Games Used to Teach and Reinforce Basic Skills

Word Fluency

Scrabble Relay

In this game, students were separated into two groups. A pile of several sets of Alphabet bean bags were placed about 25 yards from the starting line. In a relay type game, group members ran one a time to pick up and bring back to the starting line one bean bag at a time. The relay continued until all of the bean bags were picked up.

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The groups were then asked to create as many words as they could using the letters they collected. Letters could be reused after a word was created. Point values were: one point for words of 2 to 4 letters; two points for words with 5 to 9 letters; and 3 points for words with 10 letters or more.

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Words with Friends

I created a class account with Words with Friends EDU:

The success of this game was better than I expected. The learners had never heard of nor played Scrabble so I was excited to see their level of engagement. They loved challenging one another; learning how the point values worked; and exploring the power words and their definitions.

Basic Number Sense

Similar to the word fluency games, I have been using a variety of both analog and digital games to increase my learners’ knowledge and skill with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divisions.

Some of the analog math games I’ve used include”

Some of the digital games I’ve used include:


Parting Shot: One of my gifted students yelled out this week during class (I meet with one group for a half a day and the other for a full day): I love coming to my gifted class. It is so much more fun than learning. On one hand, I was happy to hear how much he enjoys the class. On the other hand, I was saddened that: (1) he didn’t see our fun activities as learning, and (2) his regular classroom lacked such fun.

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 5, 2016 at 12:43 am

2 Responses

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  1. Hello Dr. Gerstein, thank you for writing this post. It’s incredibly informative, especially for teachers and educators who strive for an intersection between gaming and education. I myself have always loved games, especially videogames, and now as an educator, I strive to make learning “fun.” I was similarly saddened that one of your students could not see the connection between “learning” and “fun” — but the fact that learning occurred and the brain was stimulated in those activities is really what matters, I think! Also, I think it’s really interesting that you value noise and movement in learning — I also value talk, particularly loud talk, but it has been harder to promote these values “within an academic environment.” I wonder if we can change the definition of an “academic environment” to include one that fosters learning through games, movement, and fun.

    Kaitlin

    December 7, 2016 at 1:04 am

    • I would love to see ‘the definition of an “academic environment” to include one that fosters learning through games, movement, and fun.’

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      December 7, 2016 at 1:17 am


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