How to Make a Learning Game That Works
My job as an instructional game designer is a mixture of science and art. It can be a challenge to strike a balance between engagement and play on one hand, and effective learning on the other. I’m sensitive to the criticism that many learning games are just “edutainment”, and I try to bring my background in the cognition of learning and memory to the table to combat it. In an ideal world we might be able to create a game that a student would choose to play even if it wasn’t assigned, but that may not be a realistic goal. Instead, I focus the bulk of my energy on the most important objective of educational game design, enhancing learning.
Fortunately, there are three learning principles, all vetted by years of research, that I consistently turn to when I want to ensure that our educational games work: testing, spacing, and feedback. While skilled teachers are already using these methods in their classrooms, educational games provide a unique opportunity to incorporate testing, spacing, and feedback in a way that students won’t experience as monotonous or intimidating.
“Testing” is almost a dirty word now, due to standardized testing, “teaching to the test”, etc., but in academic circles it’s just another word for “information retrieval” and viewed as a critically important part of learning. Testing has been shown in study after study to produce superior learning outcomes when compared to more passive study methods like re-reading, and even to more in-depth techniques like making concept maps. This is known as the testing effect¹. Retrieval practice may work because it makes a memory more accessible, by creating “routes” to retrieve it. For instance, can you recall the name of your kindergarten teacher? Although that information may be successfully stored in your memory, it may have taken you a minute (or longer) to retrieve it. By practicing retrieval, a memory becomes more readily available. A key to understanding the testing effect is that as far as the brain is concerned, learning is never “turned off.” When you are taking a quiz or test, that is as much of a learning event for your mind as a lecture, video, or worksheet.
Traditional classroom environments most commonly use quizzes and tests as summative assessments — i.e., as a method to determine how much a student has learned after a subject is taught. Even when retrieval practice is incorporated into lessons in the form of Q&A, it is often only a single individual who gets to participate at a time, one student who is called on after raising their hand to answer a teacher’s question. In these cases, the potential learning benefits of testing are being missed.
Educational games can easily incorporate both formative assessments (quizzes and retrieval practice during learning) as well as summative assessments (quizzes and retrieval practice “after” learning to assess what a student knows). Assessments can take the traditional forms of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, but can also include more novel interactions sprinkled throughout games that force students to engage with concepts. Furthermore, these assessments can be incorporated into the game design to reward students with points and/or advancement to new levels, creating a less intimidating method for engaging in retrieval practice compared to a traditional classroom quiz. One way that we are innovating around the idea of retrieval practice is to create collaborative assessments in our games — quizzes that students take together, communicating across their devices. These assessments take advantage of the testing effect but also create opportunities for students to debate with each other and reason through their answers to questions.
Imagine you had three evenings to study for three different final exams. How would you choose to allocate your study time to each subject? One way would be to spend one night on each subject, cramming learning for each subject into a single study period. Another way would be to spend a shorter amount of time every night studying all three subjects. Research shows that the latter approach wins every time, when it comes to long-term learning. This is known as the spacing effect². Spacing may work because memories become less bound to a specific context. When we form new memories, the information is closely tied to the context in which we learned it — the time, the place, our emotional state, etc.³ By spacing out learning of a concept over multiple days your memory for it becomes more accessible because it is not closely tied to a particular event or context in your life.
Traditional classroom environments commonly encourage the opposite approach, which is to compress learning of a particular topic into a few class periods and then move onto the next topic. Students may only encounter a particular topic again when reviewing for a final exam. Longer, block-scheduling class periods also exacerbate this problem.
Educational games can be intentionally designed to encourage spaced learning. The natural increasing-levels-of-difficulty design of most games forces students to re-utilize and re-practice conceptual knowledge and skills at each level, giving them spaced practice in an implicit and motivating way. Teachers can take advantage of this feature of games and utilize each game level as a spaced learning event for their students. One novel way that we are incorporating spaced practice into our games is by creating multiple problem-solving challenges that target similar concepts. For instance, a student may build a neural circuit that sends a signal from the brain to the arm to make the biceps flex in one challenge, and then build a circuit that sends a signal from the brain to the mouth to activate speaking in another. This is both a way to incorporate spaced practice into a game and a way to see if student knowledge transfers from one context to a similar, but not identical, context.
Students who receive feedback on their performance learn better than students who do not⁴. While formal feedback is often given in the context of correct/incorrect answers on quizzes and tests, its impact is independent of the testing effect — that is, the testing effect curiously persists even when students receive no feedback on their test performance. However, when feedback is given the learning benefits of testing are larger⁵. Feedback may work because of our mind’s ability to correct errors to reinforce learning. Large-scale networks in frontal regions of the brain are set up to detect (e.g., anterior cingulate cortex) and correct (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) errors by sending feedback signals to more posterior regions of the brain⁶.
Traditional classroom environments commonly utilize feedback as a tool for summative assessment — that is, incorrect answers on tests and assignments are used primarily to measure a student’s performance and determine their grades in class. However, mistakes in the learning process can also be used as powerful opportunities to strengthen learning. Rather than encouraging students to engage in error-free performance, learning environments may be set up to present many opportunities for failure to capitalize on the power of feedback and error-correction.
Educational games can and often do encourage failure in a low-stakes environment. A game is an environment in which winning and losing can happen, and winning often only occurs after a good deal of trial and error, and failure. Games present feedback that is in real-time and specific to the individual playing, and game goals can be set up to correct errors and be natural gatekeepers to progressing to more difficult levels. We are also trying a new approach to feedback in our games, which is to provide feedback on the level of collaboration within a group activity. Teachers have told us that it can be difficult to assess each student’s contribution to a group project. By using the unique data logging capabilities of educational games, we are able to capture a new level of information so that students can benefit from this type of feedback.
As a learning scientist and instructional designer, I’m always interested in finding new ways of understanding how people learn. Testing, spacing, and feedback are just three principles that can be applied to the design of curriculum to enhance student learning in the classroom. As our knowledge of human learning has progressed through research, so has the design of learning environments. Thoughtfully designed educational games have the potential to deliver our best understanding of learning science practice in a way that supports teachers and better engages students.
Dr. Katrina Schleisman is the lead Instructional Designer for Andamio Games in Minneapolis, MN, where she is currently working on projects to create and evaluate learning games for difficult-to-teach STEM subjects.
1. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181–210.
2. Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369–378.
3. Smith, S., & Vela, E. (2001). Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(2), 203–220.
4. Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(3), 245–281.
5. Pashler, H., Cepeda, N.J., Wixted, J.T., and Rohrer D. (2005). When does feedback facilitate learning of words? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 31, 3–8.
6. MacDonald, A. W., Cohen, J. D., Stenger, V. A., & Carter, C. S. (2000). Dissociating the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex in cognitive control. Science, 288(5472), 1835–1838.