Let your students do the hard work! Game design, brain activity, and learning

If we could measure brain activity through the fumes each brain releases into the atmosphere when it’s working, which of the following activities do you think are more costly:

  1. Watching TV
  2. Watching a lecture
  3. Sleeping

Well, assuming brains work like cars and release gases (that’s true only of our digestive system), we’d probably see a lot of smoke coming out of our ears when we’re sleeping. As it turns out, watching TV or attending a lecture don’t really pollute the environment that much with CO2 (Cerebral Octane, hahaha). Jokes apart, what can we infer from that? First, sleeping is very important for our brains and it is when we sleep that they “do the cleaning” and strengthen connections. Secondly, despite what has been propagated around about flatlining brains in lectures and becoming zombies when sitting in front of the TV, these two activities do not require the same amount of energy one might consider ideal to promote effective learning. Check out this article from Smithsonian.com

The big question is:

What can we do as teachers to make sure our students’ brain activity is peaking and promoting effective learning?


The simple, yet paradoxal, answer is: get out of the way! Let them do the hard work. Think of it as driving school. You’re the driving instructor and your students have never driven in their lives. You can teach them the theory as much as you want. You can use textbooks, animations, videos, etc. But I can guarantee it would be much more effective if you’d just put them inside a car and guided them through the initial steps. Once they have that “driving framework” in their heads, just sit beside them and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to make sure they don’t cause any accidents too.

Now, a more elaborate answer would be: use active learning methods. Read my last blog post about Socrates to find out what I mean. An excellent way of doing that, especially if you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of letting your students “drive the car”, is to allow them to “drive” during your revision lessons. If you’re like me, and I hope you are, you have revision lessons before the test. There are probably tens of different ways you can revise the content, but I’ll show you how using games made my students more aware of what they knew and what they still had to work on. And the cool thing is that they created their own games and played against each other.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I brought lots of materials they could use to make games. Colored A4 paper, paper clips, glue, a paper dice, cardstock, scissors, tape, colored markers, clipboards, rulers, etc.
  2. I told them to do some active recall before they started designing their games. I asked them to think for a few minutes, without checking their books, what the content of their test was.
  3. I asked them to check their books or any other source of information to help them remember the grammar structures and vocabulary they needed to know for their test.
  4. I told them to sit in groups and talk throughout the whole game-designing process and ask for help from their peers in case they had questions.
  5. I let them use their creativity and make whatever game they wanted.
  6. I asked them to set the rules for the games they had created, explain them to their classmates and play against each other. Then they had to play each other’s games as well.

We had a fun class with lots of engagement and I was quite impressed by the quality of their games. All types of puzzles, including crosswords, and word searches, as well as memory games, board games, and also card games were the most popular. At the end of the class I found out one of my students was a pro board gamer and even sold special types of dice. I had to buy them!

The outcome of this lesson was strikingly positive. Once our students possess the basic framework (like the driving framework I mentioned before), they can be let free, or at least freer, to revise, research, learn, and produce. That means we’ll be waiting and guiding on the side to make sure things run smoothly. And the biggest problem is that perhaps we don’t feel too comfortable about that, do we? It’s kinda like hiring a personal trainer to teach you how to use the equipment at the gym at the beginning and then letting them go because now you can do it on your own. What will remain unanswered is: will getting rid of the personal trainer affect how motivated and assiduous you are at the gym? Well, that’s a topic for a future post on motivation.

I’d love to get some feedback here. Have you ever tried letting your students create things and use them in class like this? Did you feel it promoted more effective learning? What was your role in the class? How did you feel?

For me, I can honestly say that if anyone had entered my classroom during that revision lesson, they would’ve had trouble seeing anything because of the huge cloud formed by all the fumes  coming out of my students’ brain.


3 thoughts on “Let your students do the hard work! Game design, brain activity, and learning”

  1. Pingback: Part 1. Engage your student – André Hedlund

  2. I like this idea but will it work in a one-to-one classroom or an online class? I’d like to know if there’s another approach for these types of class.

    1. That’s a great question. It’s definitely harder to do this in one-to-one classes. I’ll write about it very soon. But the idea is to work with deadlines and a project. Forget the games example. Allow the student to do some alone time work and use their creativity for you to assess later. It’s kinda like a creative designer in a company working in his own terms and presenting the final results to the CEO. There would need to be frequent checkpoints also

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