The Hidden Connection Between Video Games and Learning

Last year I had the opportunity to attend the Association for Middle Level Education’s Annual Conference in Louisville, KY. The first breakout session I attended was entitled “What Great Schools Do When Students Fail” and was presented by Dr. Bobb Darnell. Dr. Bobb was very entertaining and provided an avalanche of information. I still comb through the stack of notes and handouts I walked away with upon occasion. Most every school district could benefit from his presentations or other services and his website is a great resource for teachers. I highly encourage you set aside some time to click through it and see if there’s anything you can use.

Despite the overwhelming quantity of great information however, it was this tidbit that I found exceptionally powerful.


Now, I don’t know where Dr. Darnell gleaned this information from, but given the obviousness of it I have little reason to doubt its validity. Anybody who has ever spent time playing video games, or even talking with someone who has, realizes the accuracy of these claims.  

The ramifications of this are simple, yet impactful.

As teachers, we simply MUST make sure our students understand the objective. During his presentation, Dr. Darnell stressed the point, saying “Imagine if you played any game for an hour and when you walked out of the room, somebody asked you how you did and you had to reply ‘I don’t know.’” This is precisely how many of our students feel if we don’t make it clear what they should be trying to learn.

We MUST make it clear to students what strategies, skills and vocabulary they will need to know to be successful with any given unit of study. We should give it to students at the beginning of their studies as well, and give them a mechanism to track their own understanding of these concepts as they go along.

We MUST give students an opportunity to reflect upon their work and know what to improve upon next time. Failure to do so is to rob them of the opportunity to learn from their own experience. For more on this, check out Reflecting for Learning section.

When looking at this hidden connection between Video Games and Learning it’s inspiring to think of what life might be like if students attacked our class with the same vigor they play their favorite game. While that level of excitement may be unattainable, even a fraction of that would be preferable to the motivational struggles we face now. We attribute these motivation problems to a variety of sources, but in reality they may be a bi-product of not knowing the objective, key vocabulary or strategies needed to be successful or never getting the opportunity to show they’ve learned from their mistakes.

We don’t need coercive, extrinsic motivators to inspire our students. We simply need to show them what they need to accomplish and give them the tools and opportunities to do so. 

Lesson Planning Using The Four Critical Questions

If your school operates as a Professional Learning Community, chances are you’re very familiar with the Four Critical Questions originally developed by Rick DuFour. They’re essential whenever first starting a collaborative team in a school and well worth reviewing from time to time as you carry on your work.

However, what if we re-imagined these questions through the eyes of our students? What sort of impact would this have on the way we lesson plan? Turns out what we get is a blueprint for how we should go about lesson planning in our classrooms.

1. What do you want us to know?

Spend some time making sure students understand what it is they’re trying to learn. In some cases, this may take A LOT of time, especially at first. Simply writing the objective on the board isn’t enough, as Formative Assessment guru Jan Chappuis says “On the board is not in their head.” Likewise, simply putting the objective in student friendly terms won’t get the job done either.

Instead of asking a student “What are you working on?” try asking them “Why are you doing this?” For example, if students in Science class are building a model of a cell and you ask them why, the correct answer isn’t “Because you told me to too?” The correct answer is “To better learn how to identify the parts of a cell and what they do.” It takes practice, but they get it eventually. Once that happens, students begin learning with a purpose and their motivation shifts from “task completion” to actual learning.

2. How can we show you we know it?

Teachers and administrators often come at this question from the perspective of “How will we know…” which is certainly talking about assessment, both formative and summative. Students look at this from the unique perspective of having to SHOW YOU they’ve learned something. Maybe they’re proud to have learned it or maybe they just want you off their back, either way, when a student knows what proficiency looks like they’re much more likely to achieve it.

Consider also that this is a GREAT time to Differentiate Instruction. Do you really care how a student shows you they’ve learned something as long as they can show you they’re proficient in what you need them to know? Give them some choices and watch what happens. Click Here to learn Three Easy Ways to Differentiate Instruction or How to Differentiate Instruction Using Layered Curriculum.PLCs Four Questions

3. What should we do if we struggle to learn it?

Do your students get a second chance? Do they know this? So many teaches are afraid of students refusing to work if they keep getting chance after chance but in reality, multiple chances breeds an atmosphere where failure is ok as long as it’s learned from and students feel empowered to take positive risks. By showing students that if they don’t get something the first time there is still a “Plan B” or “Plan C” if necessary, teachers can reposition themselves from the “Assigner of Tasks” to the “Ally of Assistance.” Teacher and student can now work together to learn an objective, making the objective the bad guy, not the teacher.

Not only should great teachers develop multiple ways to help struggling students, they should ensure the students know those second chances exist and that if they learn from their failures, they will succeed.

4. What can we do if we already know this?

Enrichment shouldn’t be something students are pulled from regular classes to receive, nor should it be mindless busy work that’s less challenging than the work required to be proficient. Once a student has demonstrated proficiency, make sure you have a plan to inspire these students to keep working. Teachers often think of this as a classroom management issue, and it can be, but more importantly, students who already know classroom material need to be challenged without feeling like they’re being “punished” by having to do more work. Students who have mastered grade level material deserve to be inspired and challenged in the same way their struggling classmates deserve an opportunity to try again if they’re struggling. 

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Step 3: Develop a Culture of Learning

Step 4: Lesson Plan For Learning

Step 5: Reflecting For Learning