Guest post by Kathryn Procope


Whether it’s Madden NFL 17 and Call of Duty or Candy Crush and Words with Friends, both kids and adults today are spending countless hours playing video games. This time is generally regarded as unproductive or, worse yet, detrimental to one’s well-being. 

But while it may seem that video games are nothing more than escapist fun, recent research suggests that video game use can have positive effects on learning and comprehension. Instead of hindering student performance, digital video game technologies show potential to improve student engagement, achievement, and mastery of content.

A recent Pew research study revealed that 97 percent of teenagers play some type of video game at least once a day. That is a huge statistic. As educational leaders work to create the ultimate 21st-century classroom, the utilization of digital game-based technologies cannot be ignored. My experience suggests that digital game-based learning can be a viable method to engage and motivate students.

Digital Video Games at Work in a Classroom 

At Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a seventh-grade class of underperforming math students plays the video game TowerStorm from DimensionU twice a week. TowerStorm is a competitive, real-time, multiplayer game that provides timed online activities that reinforce mathematics instruction. Students create their own avatar and gain points by solving problems associated with the standards. Correct answers give students an opportunity to launch a ball at the tower that increases their score. Students compete against each other to get the highest points on the leader board.

Playing TowerStorm has increased student engagement in mathematics practice. Students are motivated to work on problems independently because they want to score points and advance on the board. Our teachers have observed a greater willingness among students to solve math problems while playing the game than other traditional practice methods. TowerStorm is fun and social for students, and they are eager to work collaboratively to help one another. Students give each other high-fives as they advance and encourage their peers who are struggling.

Benefits of Playing Video Games

Students who play video games actually use many of the skills that teachers consistently try to cultivate in the classroom. Gamers tend to be better problem solvers and have better visual spatial development than nongamers. According to the American Psychological Association, playing video games may improve cognitive skills, including spatial navigation, reasoning, memory, and perception. Video games require players to devote a significant amount of time to practicing the game in order to advance from one level to the next. Gamers strategize their play and try different approaches when one doesn’t work. These students expect and use immediate feedback and enjoy challenges and competition. And if this wasn’t enough, group and online play provide social reinforcement and opportunities for collaboration.

Digital games are designed in ways that replicate many of the same structures we as educators aim to build in our classrooms. The first step in play is understanding the game’s objectives or learning targets, such as collecting items, positioning elements, or controlling territory. Players use online tutorials or play with others to learn the skills and knowledge needed for game play. Furthermore, digital games are “scaffolded” to support growth and development. Players advance to more difficult levels after mastering easier ones. Games provide constant feedback and offer multiple chances to progress. Players receive incentives and rewards as they achieve game goals, which help builds confidence and a desire to move to more difficult levels.

As school leaders search to provide positive learning opportunities for students, digital game-based learning is an area that needs more attention and research. Let’s look to what these games are doing right and learn from them to see how we can improve student engagement, achievement, and mastery of content.

Kathryn Procope is the Head of School at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, where she encourages the implementation of innovative technologies to encourage student learning. She is the 2016 District of Columbia Principal of the Year. 

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