Playing Fair

Initial Publication Date: June 2, 2004
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Competition in the Classroom

A lot of instructors are understandably nervous about teaching with games, but certain challenging ideas, like competition between classmates, aren't an essential component to games, especially for your first few game-based exercises.

  • Will your students handle competition well?
    • If you don't want students to compete against each other, have them compete against a standard, i.e.everyone needs to find 5 rocks on the list to qualify for a donut!
    • Many students enjoy competition on their own time, in the form of sports, video games, photo contests, etc.
  • Is there a problem rewarding some with high scores or awards and punishing others with low scores?
    • This process is similar to that of assigning grades, which unlike game scores, can change a students' life all by themselves.
    • Sometimes, it's possible to give prizes to everyone. For example, if the prizes are donuts, the winning team can take first pick, but everyone gets one (Reuss and Gardulski, 2001 ).

Using games for learning requires the same priorities we already employ for formal assessment: fairness and relevance of the score to learned material.

Focus on Winning vs. Focus on Learning

This is a very serious concern and a good response to it distinguishes a truly educational game from mere entertainment. Lepper and Cordova, 1992 report if the material to be learned is simply in the background of the game, that students will breeze by it on their way to the finish line without noticing it. Learning must be essential to scoring and to winning.

  • Rushing: Students may choose to be fast rather than careful.
    • For example, if the team's score consists of the number of correct identifications, students may choose to identify as many samples as possible, whether rightly or wrongly.
    • Reward careful work in this instance by docking points for incorrect identifications or by allowing opposing teams a chance to gain points by challenging incorrect identifications.
  • Cheating: Same as with grades. Deal accordingly. If need be, fail the students involved, even if the game isn't graded.

Students at a Disadvantage

Physical and Learning Disabilities: If a disability prevents a student from performing certain tasks, or has them performing the tasks at a disadvantage, you need to determine whether that task is integral to learning.

  • If not (like running in a relay race), allow that person to have a teammate perform the tasks, much like a designated hitter. However, the disabled student should do the part of the task that relates to learning (such as identifying specimens).
  • Maybe the student just needs a few extra seconds to perform a given task or may need instructions repeated. This is often the case with students who are not disabled, but who are struggling to learn English along with geoscience.
  • If the student can't do the learning tasks, you are facing the same problems that you would teaching a disabled student in more traditional ways. Check with your disabilities office for assistance and advice.

Students who consider themselves "no good at science" have difficulties in traditional science classes. Will these students become even more intimidated at the prospect of a science competition?

  • Public Scoring: at least your classmates don't know what your grades are! For many students, public embarrassment is a greater concern than failing grades. Publicize only the high scores (the top 5 or 10, depending on class size), but don't draw attention to low ones.
  • Much as you would with low grades, encourage low-scoring students to get help with their studies and with learning in general.

Domination by Teammates: Students who are shy or disadvantaged may let their teammates do all the work and rack up all the points.

  • If you observe this, have students within the group rotate responsibilities each turn regularly or randomly.

The Same Players Winning (or Losing) All of the Time: This can happen, when one group or person is noticably better prepared or motivated than the others.

  • Assign Balanced Teams: Don't let students self-select, as students with similar backgrounds are likely to aggregate into teams. Either group them randomly or make sure that the teams are roughly balanced with respect to science background, age, and social background. Research on learning indicates that diverse teams learn more (Wenzel, 2000 ).
  • Reward Good Work with More Work: If one player or team is just that good (or that competitive), make part of the prize the responsibility for refereeing the next event, effectively removing them out of the competition for one game, and enhancing the prestige of a win.

For Further Reading

The Positive Coach Mental Model - Research Summary: Teaching with games to improve self-esteem.

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