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September 27, 2022

Videogames in the Classroom: Meaningful Learning Backed by Research

The use of videogames as an educational tool in the higher education classroom is becoming increasingly common. Research has demonstrated that the use of educational videogames (serious games) can lead to meaningful learning outcomes. However, very little work has been done on the use of entertainment-based videogames in college-level courses. That is why we have conducted a research study in our courses and developed materials to encourage and help other teachers to implement the use of video games in their courses.

We have explored and reported on the use of video games in our classrooms since 2012. In 2017 we expanded our experimentation to include more disciplines. Although the results were convincing, they were based on our informal observations. After obtaining a research grant through the Pedagogical Research and Experimentation Program (PREP), in Fall 2020 and Winter 2021, we set up a rigorous scientific experiment in our respective courses, with 2 objectives:

  • to determine whether meaningful learning occurs when using entertainment-based videogames in college level courses
  • to document our process of implementing videogames in a college classroom

More specifically, for the 1st objective, we wanted to determine whether meaningful learning occurs:

  • in the form of empathy, when using an entertainment-based videogame titled Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) in the Interactions and Cultural Communities (351-CC1-AS) course taught by Pascale in the Special Care Counselling program.
  • in the form of critical thinking, when using an entertainment-based videogame titled Portal in the Knowledge (345-101-MQ) course taught by Johnathan in Humanities.

We chose to focus on entertainment-based videogames because of how ubiquitous they are compared to serious games. By undertaking this project in both a Humanities (theoretical) course and a Special Care Counselling (technical) course, we wanted to give our project a multidisciplinary dimension and highlight the potential for transferability to other disciplines.

The research study

We conducted a research experiment including qualitative and quantitative data. Because of the pandemic, this was done online. In both courses, students were randomly divided into a pretest group (control group) and posttest group (experimental group). Students in the control groups engaged with regular course content, while those in the experimental group were asked to purchase the videogame selected for their course. As they played the videogame, they also had to answer observational questions related to the game’s content. These discussion questions were informal in nature and not graded. Examples include:

  • “At the beginning of the game pay close attention to the voice that speaks to you. Even if it is very robotic, you can still attribute a gender to it. Is it male or female? Is this significant?” (Portal, Johnathan’s class)
  • “Describe a scene or situation in the videogame that best illustrates the concept of interdependence. Explain your answer.” (Never Alone, Pascale’s course)

Before and after the intervention, participants completed a set of questionnaires, including Likert-style items and open-ended questions. Table 1 summarizes the research objective for each of our respective courses, the video games played, the number of participants and the questionnaires we used as measuring instruments. We invite readers interested in our methodology to consult the complete research report.

Course/program Interactions and Cultural Communities (351-CC1-AS) (Special Care Counselling program) Knowledge (345-101-MQ) (Humanities – General education)
Objective Determine whether meaningful learning occurs when using entertainment-based videogames in the Interactions and Cultural Communities (351-CC1-AS) course in the Special Care Counselling program. Determine whether meaningful learning occurs when using entertainment-based videogames in the Knowledge (345-101-MQ) course in Humanities.
Videogame played Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) (Upper One Games, 2015) Portal (Valve, 2007)
No. of groups and participants 2 (36) 3 (35)
No. of pretest/posttest participants 20 pretest

16 posttest

17 pretest

18 posttest

Pretest instruments a) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) questionnaire (Davis, 1980)
b) Lived Experience questionnaire
a) Discussion questions
Posttest instruments a) Psychometric questionnaire (Hamari et al, 2016)
b) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) questionnaire (Davis, 1980)
c) Lived Experience questionnaire
a) Psychometric questionnaire (Hamari et al, 2016)

b) Discussion questions

Table 1. Summary of the research objectives, the video games played, the number of participants and the questionnaires used as measuring instruments in each course.

Outcomes

The quantitative and qualitative analyses of our data show clear trends that span both courses.

  • There is a strong correlation between learning and engagement, and between engagement and immersion. Students from both courses felt that the respective videogame they played required skill, gave them a sense of immersion and engagement, and helped them learn something.
  • We observed a statistically significant increase in empathy levels in Pascale’s course, and increased critical thinking in Johnathan’s course, which aligns with the learning objective in each course.
  • Our results suggest that both entertainment-based videogames offered similar levels of engagement, immersion, challenge, skill and learning to those found in educational videogames. This implies that the use of videogames in classroom settings is highly adaptable to any course from any discipline if the teacher selects the appropriate videogame, chooses a specific learning objective, and guides the experience to achieve that objective.

In sum, we found scientific evidence that suggests that entertainment-based videogames have the potential to lead to meaningful learning experiences in a college classroom setting.

A guide for teachers

It would be interesting to experiment with a wider range of videogame genres in a variety of technical and pre-university programs to examine whether they are well-suited for a college classroom setting.

Moreover, we also have some recommendations for teachers wishing to experiment with videogames in their courses:

  • Focus on one specific learning objective
  • Use online resources when searching for a video game that meets your learning objective:
  • Play the video game yourself and have your own experience
  • Evaluate the 5 dimensions on which the video game you choose can influence players, with the help of a 13-item questionnaire that we have designed.
    • the amount of play: gameplay should be kept short
    • the content of play: avoid games containing violence and ensure the themes closely align with your learning objectives
    • the game context: how will the students engage with the game (individually, collaboratively, …)
    • the structure of the game: (2D or 3D, and the associated level of difficulty)
    • the mechanics of game play (how do students interact with the game: using a controller, keyboard and mouse, …?)
  • Develop observation questions and have students complete them while playing the video game. Our results show that the role of the teacher is critical when implementing videogames in the classroom; entertainment-based videogames by themselves are not automatically effective tools for learning.

Next steps

We are currently working with 5 teachers at our college who are interested in using a video game for one specific learning activity in their course. We would like to extend this idea to the college community at large with the aim of setting up an informal virtual community of practice to share ideas and outcomes.

If you are interested in integrating the use of a video game in a learning activity or your course, we would love to hear from you in the comments section below or via email. Our research suggests that the application of entertainment-based videogames in classroom settings is quite versatile and is not restrained to videogame genres or specific disciplines or programs. We would like to validate this on a practical level.

Editor’s Note

The entire research report, titled “Videogames, Engagement, Empathy and Meaningful Learning in the College Classroom” is freely accessible online. It presents the research problem and theoretical underpinnings of the study as well as an in-depth discussion of the research methodology and outcomes. Chapter 4 (section 4.5) and the appendices contain materials that teachers may use to implement video games in their own course.

References 

Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy.

Hamari, J., Shernoff, D., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning.

Upper One Games. (2015). Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa).

Valve. (2007). Portal.

About the authors

Johnathan Mina

Johnathan Mina has been teaching in the department of Humanities at College LaSalle (Montreal) since 2007. He holds an M.A. in English Literature from Dalhousie University and an Honours B.A. in Liberal Arts and English Literature from Concordia University. His passion and interest in pedagogy and the use of technology in the classroom has led him to win the College LaSalle Teaching Excellence award in 2018, the SALTISE research mini-grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom, and the SALTISE research grant in 2018, for the implementation of VR in the classroom. In 2020 he was awarded the PREP research grant by the Quebec Ministry of Higher Learning to undertake research on the implementation of videogames in college classrooms which was published in June 2022.

Pascale Warmoes

Pascale Warmoes has been teaching in the department of Special Care Counselling at College LaSalle (Montreal) since 2008. She holds an M.A. certificate in Education from the University of Sherbrooke and a B.A. specialization in Psychology. Her passion and interest in exploring new and innovative pedagogical approaches in her classroom, has led her to receive the College LaSalle Teaching Excellence award in 2018, the SALTISE research mini-grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom, and the SALTISE research grant in 2018 for the implementation of VR in the classroom. In 2020 she was awarded the PREP research grant by the Quebec Ministry of Higher Learning to undertake research on the implementation of videogames in college classrooms which was published in June 2022.

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