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  • Travis N Thurston, PhD

3 Tips for Teaching with Games and Experiences

Updated: Feb 2



First off, I want to offer full disclosure before we get started: I hold an inherent belief that learning should be fun. A few years ago, I started a little tradition with my kids when I drop them off at school in the morning. Just before they jump out of the car, and head into their school we repeat in unison:


“Work hard, learn lots, and have fun!”

I find that it's great way to start the day with a nod to a growth mindset, remembering that it takes intentional effort to learn and to be successful. And maybe most importantly, learning should be fun. I recently had the chance to join Barbi Honeycutt on an episode of the Lecture Breakers podcast which gave me a chance to reflect on some of my own experiences and the research surrounding games and learning in the classroom.

⬇️Check out the episode of Lecture Breakers


The term gamification tends to get thrown around a lot in edtech and teaching circles, and I’ve done my fair share of adding game-like elements to non-game situations as part of my own teaching and courses that I’ve worked on as an instructional designer. Rather than rehash all of the points from the podcast, I have included three quick tips for using games and experiences in our teaching to help our students learn, and three associated prompts for further discussion.



1. Capture Student Attention and Spark Interest


If we are trying to spark student interest in the content of the day, consider starting with capturing student attention with an anticipatory set, or an activity that promotes inquiry and/or activates prior knowledge. This can be as straightforward as playing a song for students to synthesize lyrics as they relate to course content, or as a powerful think-pair-share. These are great ways to immediately get students engaged by preparing them for the lesson.


Q1 - How do you capture student attention and spark interest?

(respond to this question on twitter with #instructdev)



2. Immerse Students in Game-like Experiences


There is a fantastic database of activities on Playmeo to give you insights on different ways to implement experiences in your next class session. How can I justify using valuable instructional time for a game-like experience? Well reader, I'm glad you asked. Rather than just telling students, or trying to get them to conceptualize in figurative terms, a game-like experience immerses students in a situation that gives them an interesting frame of reference for reflection. It's a lesson that they're going to remember, because they are actively involved and emotionally connected to the experience.


Q2 - How do you immerse students in game-like experiences?


3. Use Games that Encourage Retrieval Practice


Retrieval practice is perhaps one of the most powerful learning science strategies that we can employ in the classroom, and games provide a fun and engaging frame to bring students in. Consider trying a low stakes retrieval practice game that pushes students toward relevant metacognition. Games provide an opportunity for reflection and debriefing which provides students with time and space to relate the experience and the content to their own interests, and their own lives. Remember, that:


"Relevance can come from the way something is taught; it does not have to come from the content itself." -John Keller, ARCS Model

Q3 - How do you use games that encourage retrieval practice?


Dr. Thurston holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, and a master's degree in Educational Technology. With over a decade of experience as an educator, Travis is a former k12 teacher and instructional designer, a visiting professor at Universidad Casa Grande, and the Assistant Director of Empowering Teaching Excellence at Utah State University. Discuss this post with Travis @travesty328

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