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Surprising Insights: How Teachers Use Games in the Classroom

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More teachers are using digital games in the classroom, and they're using them more frequently, according to a new teacher survey just released by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. But more surprisingly, the study reveals that teachers are finding that one of the most impactful use of games is for motivating and rewarding students, specifically those who are low-performing.

The survey, which interviewed 694 K-8 teachers with an average of 14.5 years of teaching experience, aims to understand how and why teachers are using digital games in the classroom.

More than three-quarters of teachers surveyed -- 78 percent -- report using digital games in class, and that's up from 50 percent who reported using them in a different survey two years ago. “Teachers say they want to use digital games to deliver standards-based content and assess student knowledge and skills,” said Cooney Center’s Senior Director and Research Scientist (and survey designer) Lori Takeuchi. “But they're mixed on how effective games have been in doing these things.”

Of those who do use games in the classroom, 53 percent said they use video game devices to motivate and reward students, and 41 percent said they use non-digital games for that same reason. Teachers also said they offer games to their students as a way of giving them a break.


Almost half the teachers surveyed -- 47 percent -- said low-performing students who've been struggling in traditional school settings benefited the most from using games. Conversely, only 15 percent of teachers said that high-performing students benefited from playing games.

Of those who use games in the classroom, more teachers (41 percent) are using them to cover content mandated by state or national standards than for formative assessment (29 percent).

With more findings to be released in a later report, it’s still too soon to find an overarching theme other than the fact that games are becoming more commonplace in classrooms, Takeuchi said. Yet the first half of the survey released Monday does include important information about the future of digital gaming in the classroom.

Teachers report the greatest barriers to using more digital games in the classroom to be time (45 percent) and cost (44 percent), but researchers found that teachers who play digital games themselves are less likely to be unsure of how to integrate games into the classroom (20 percent) as compared to  teachers who don’t play digital games outside the classroom (29 percent).

Perhaps most surprising is the strong use of non-digital games, more than video games, to connect students to one another: 41 percent of teachers use non-digital games to practice material already learned, 41 percent for motivation and reward, and 26 percent use them to “connect students to one another.”

What is it about a game of Scrabble or Sorry that fosters connection? Takeuchi said that it’s more than just the individual nature of digital games -- in fact, the survey suggests that most digital game-playing students play in twos or small groups. “What's interesting about the board game findings is that they're still being used quite a lot - more than video games,” said Takeuchi. “And there is something about the face-to-face orientation of board game play, and the fact that you have to play board games with other people that make ‘connection’ a frequent purpose of this medium in K-8 classrooms.”

The release of the Gates Foundation-funded survey is seen as a timely conversation due to a convergence of factors surrounding games in the classroom. “There are demographic, policy, and empirical circumstances that make this survey particularly timely,” Takeuchi said.

In 2014, 91 percent of 2–17-year-olds play video games (NPD, 2013), and 58 percent of American adults also play, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2013 estimates. "And since teachers are adults, it stands to reason that today’s teachers would be more open to the notion of using games to teach,” Takeuchi said. In addition, the Common Core implementation has teachers searching for ways to deliver content set by the new standards, and two recent meta-analyses published by GlassLab, according to Takeuchi, “have unequivocally ruled in DGBL’s (Digital Game-Based Learning’s) favor.”


As expected, teachers are using tech in the classroom regularly: 81 percent of teachers report using laptops and desktops on a weekly basis. The technology teachers rely on most to deliver new material to students are projectors (72 percent) and digital white boards (73 percent). While this conjures the image of a traditional lecture model on nothing more than fancier devices, Takeuchi said that digital white boards and projectors offer much more: both can be used for multiple purposes, including group digital game play. When it comes to assessment, teachers appear to be split, but most do not currently use technology to assess students.

About half of teachers (55 percent) report using digital games in classrooms, most commonly on Mac or PC desktops and laptops, on a weekly basis -- though Takeuchi said they defined “digital games” for the survey quite broadly.* With thousands of games to choose from, finding the most appropriate ones for their class is teachers' biggest complaint, according to the study. For the most part, teachers choose which games to use by talking with other teachers, playing with the games themselves, and asking students their opinions about the games.

Other factors in drawing teachers toward games include whether they track students' performance (43 percent) and whether they find evidence that the game is effective (37 percent). Perhaps surprisingly, only 15 percent of teachers noted the reviews the game received and only a quarter cited the cost of the games as factors that influenced their decisions to use a game in the classroom.

The use of video gaming devices in particular in classrooms remains low. Nearly 80 percent of teachers report they “never” use video gaming devices in the classroom, and only 13 percent report use these devices to cover new material. But when it comes to motivating or rewarding students for a job well done, 53 percent of teachers allow students to play video games on gaming devices as motivation or reward. (Nearly half of teachers surveyed use TV, DVDs and DVR for the same purpose.)

More information on teachers and games, including gaming teacher profiles and the kinds of students who seem to benefit most from digital games, is coming when the second half of the survey is released in the fall of 2014. At that time, researches will get a more complete view of where classrooms are when it comes to game-based learning, and how far they have to go.

* Update June 10, 2014: This version of the article reflects the removal of a reference to games that were not part of the initial release of the study.




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