Motion Math Blog

Top 7 Criteria of a Great Learning Game

According to a 2015 study by Project Tomorrow, 62% of elementary school teachers use games in the classroom. At Motion Math, we’re positively thrilled that more and more teachers recognize gaming’s potential as an instructional medium. But with so many learning games out there, how can educators identify the best resources? Our own judgment boils down to seven main criteria:

A great learning game:

  1. has clear learning objectives merged with gameplay;
  2. is a valid formative assessment, actionable for teachers;
  3. includes instruction to guide students toward greater understanding;
  4. promotes strategic thinking;
  5. shows multiple representations of the content;
  6. deeply engages students;
  7. motivates students to challenge themselves.

You can download our custom evaluation form, but first, let’s dive into each element:

1. A great learning game has clear learning objectives merged with gameplay. There should be no distinction between learning the content and playing. Many games fail this test because they alternate between educational and fun components. For example, you’re charging through a castle, sword in hand, until you’re forced to stop and solve an unrelated arithmetic problem. The math merely serves as an impediment to exploring the castle, and the resulting back and forth is less fun than a commercial game, less efficient than a digital worksheet, and sends the message that learning itself isn’t fun. In contrast, DragonBox Algebra, one of our favorite math games, is entirely about simplifying terms and isolating x. The learning and play are one and the same.

2. A great learning game is a valid formative assessment, actionable for teachers. Winning should only be possible if the student is actually proficient in the academic skill addressed by the game. This is important for the student’s own sense of their learning progress and for the game’s usefulness as formative assessment for teachers. Kids are geniuses at finding any possible way to “hack” a game and win without knowing the content. Solid learning games cover up all possible escape routes so mastering the content is the only way to succeed. Successful games then present this mastery data to teachers in an actionable format.

3. A great learning game includes instruction to guide students toward greater understanding. It should not just be a quiz to determine what a student knows, but rather a pedagogical tool. Effective techniques include scaffolding to reduce the complexity of the task, offering hints, and reframing problems.

4. A great learning game promotes strategic thinking. Given meaningful choices, students can explore diverse outcomes and learn to plan several steps ahead. They’ll also be more engaged because their actions are driving the experience. This element is where animated worksheets can’t compete, because students don’t have any choices; they’re forced to answer a fixed series of questions. Complex games with diverse agents can also teach students systems thinking, but even a relatively simple game with uniform pieces such as checkers gives players many choices with long-term consequences.

5. A great learning game shows multiple representations of the content. If a student plays with diverse symbols they’re more likely to understand the concepts underneath particular problems and to transfer learning to situations outside the game world.

6. A great learning game deeply engages students. Games inspire a special kind of focus. There’s no reason to use gaming in the classroom instead of another instructional media if the game doesn’t deeply grab students’ attention. This engagement sometimes takes the form of loud, laughing collaboration, and sometimes quiet intensity, but regardless, a great learning game should have students begging to play during recess, after school, and at home. They’re invested intellectually and emotionally.

7. A great learning game motivates students to challenge themselves. Games are a natural medium for developing a growth mindset and a positive relationship to challenge. No student expects to win a game the first time they play. While failing a quiz five times in a row would depress most students, students expect to lose a game level five or even fifty times before they finally win. Losing doesn’t have the same negative impact on a child’s ego because it’s “just a game.” However, some games can lose this motivational power with overly harsh negative feedback – bright red X’s, harsh noises, and a lack of helpful hints can make losing feel like flunking. Great learning games encourage students to keep persisting through difficult material.

How do you know a great learning game when you see it? Please comment below, and download our custom evaluation form to guide your own process of finding the best learning games.

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