Teaching with Games

Educational online games and game-like simulations such as Geniverse can help students explore concepts before engagement with them through other activities, apply concepts learned and review concepts.

Planning to use a game-like simulation such as Geniverse is not much different than planning to use any unit for the first time, but we’d like to emphasize a couple of key differences right away:

  • The game alone cannot teach students the concepts.
  • An actively involved teacher is a necessity (i.e.- you’re not being replaced).

Here are some nuggets of wisdom for instructing with games and game-like simulations, gleaned from the educational research and from the teachers who were involved in the development and testing of Geniverse.

  1. Decide upon on your entry point.

    Will you go “all in” with a full-fledged implementation, or will you take a more measured approach to implementing Geniverse the first time? If you’re comfortable with the unknown, good at navigating technology and its associated glitches, and have the time to plan ahead, full immersion might work for you. If this is your first attempt at instructing with a game, or if you don’t feel fluent with technology, perhaps a toe dip would be a better way to start. Consider using the 3-Lesson Primer to ease into Geniverse.

  2. Become familiar with the materials, but you don’t have to be an expert at the start.

    You would do this for any new material, of course. Play through the Geniverse challenges yourself, before using them with your students. Can you solve the challenges? Where might your students need support? Read the associated Teacher Guides for the intended outcomes, and for insight into where students might struggle (you’ll also find the answers here if you need them). Skim the relevant Lesson Plans and Handouts to aid in your planning (see next topic). Skim the Geniversity table of contents to see if there are any other resources that might be helpful (e.g.- this page).

  3. Incorporate the game into a blended learning environment.

    Geniverse is not designed as a stand-alone set of activities in front of which students can be plunked down to learn. Geniverse is designed to be used as an instructional tool that the teacher incorporates into a blended learning environment that includes other activities, discussions, lectures, notes, readings, etc.

    Determine in advance how Geniverse will fit with your existing learning modules, lessons, or units. Questions to consider while planning to implement Geniverse:

    • What are the learning objectives of my unit?
    • What are the student outcomes?
    • Which parts of the game are relevant to the objectives and outcomes?
    • Will I use Geniverse, or parts of it, to replace portions of my curriculum or to supplement them?
    • How will gameplay be paced?
    • What activities, lectures, discussions, etc., will precede and follow gameplay?

    We expect that teachers will supplement Geniverse with non-Geniverse activities and lessons. For example, all of our field test teachers incorporated activities that connected concepts learned in Geniverse to human genetics. They found that this solidified understanding of concepts, allowed students to transfer their learning to novel situations, and provided a motivating real-life connection that students valued.

  4. Simply playing the game is not enough.

    Students must produce specific products designed to formatively and summatively assess their learning. Some of these may take place in-game, like the Journal posts and Certification Exams, the teacher may need to develop others.

  5. Students need uninterrupted chunks of time for gameplay.

    How long those chunks should be depends on the Challenge. In general, the higher the level, the more time is needed. However there will be times when gameplay needs to be paused for a brief class discussion that will enable students to move forward effectively once gameplay is resumed. The Lesson Plans provide suggestions for timing.

  6. Alternate between being the “guide on the side” and the “sage on the stage”.

    Sometimes you will need to be the “sage on the stage” providing direct instruction. More often you will play the role of “guide on the side”, probing student thinking by asking questions rather than giving answers, encouraging groups to explain why they’ve reached a particular conclusion or why they decided to do something a particular way, and facilitating collaboration and problem solving. This requires relinquishing a little control, but empowers students. The Lesson Plans provide much guidance for the role of “guide on the side”.

  7. Link gameplay to student sense-making and reflection.

    This bears repeating: Geniverse is not designed as a stand-alone set of activities in front of which students can be plunked down to learn. Geniverse is meant to be used as an instructional tool the teacher incorporates into a blended learning environment. Geniverse requires students to think and act like scientists encountering these inheritance patterns for the first time. This inquiry approach and the necessary collaboration and perseverance in problem solving is unfamiliar to and uncomfortable for many students and requires time for them to reflect on what they’ve done in the game and what it means. In order to ensure comprehension and learning there needs to be planned time for discussions and even some writing. Linking gameplay and sense-making activities enhances the power of the game and increases student comprehension.

  8. Find out what your students are thinking.

    Listen in on group interactions during gameplay. Facilitate small group and whole class discussions. Probe students to clarify their thinking and to provide evidence for their claims. Questions like “What’s your evidence/ What makes you say that?”, and comments like “Tell me more about what you’re saying.” will be your bread and butter during Geniverse. These strategies will help you formatively assess student learning as they progress through Geniverse in order to inform your decisions about next instructional steps. The Lesson Plans suggest specific formative assessment strategies1 and probing questions2.

    1 Keeley, Page. Science formative assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008.

    2 Walsh, Jackie A., and Beth D. Sattes. Quality questioning: research-based practice to engage every learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press; 2005.

  9. Have students work in groups.

    Collaboration is at the heart of all scientific endeavors, and Geniverse is a scientific endeavor. We all know that two (or three, or four) heads are better than one, especially for problem solving, which Geniverse is chock full of. The Argument Challenges in Geniverse require teamwork, otherwise students flounder and get frustrated that they can’t “get it”. For students who don’t like to work in groups, the teacher can build in opportunities to work solo. For example, the Target-Matching Challenges can usually be solved independently through the Apprentice Level, or perhaps students start by working alone on an Argument Challenge before coming together to continue in groups.

    If your students struggle with “group work”, check out the Lesson Plans and our new Formative Assessment Strategies page for ideas about how to get kids productively working and talking with each other.

  10. Leverage the competitive nature of students.

    Students can be quite competitive for those stars! One of our teachers grouped her students into “Houses” for her genetics unit, much like in the Harry Potter stories. Students earned points for things like effort, group work, number of stars earned, and homework completed. The winning house earned (inexpensive) prizes.

  11. Make it okay to fail.

    Some challenges accomplish this in-game, because students can repeat an activity to earn more stars. For argument Cases, students may not “get it right” the first time because their understanding is incomplete. They need to know and feel that this is okay, and they need support to get to the point of success.

    Education in the U.S. largely focuses on getting the “right answer”, which is not how real science works. There are no “right answers”, only “best explanations” given the available evidence. Geniverse is designed so that students mimic the work of real scientists. This is a paradigm shift for many science classrooms, and requires a shift in classroom culture as well. Consider setting norms for respectful idea sharing and critiquing.

  12. Be flexible.

    When we asked our field test teachers what advice they would give someone new to using Geniverise, a very common response was, “Be flexible!”. Despite best-laid plans, there will be times when you’ll need to re-adjust on the fly. Being familiar with the challenges and the related concepts in advance will go a long way in preparing you to deal with the unexpected.

Click here for additional resources that support #6-8 above. 

Additional resources about teaching with games: