Games in the College Classroom

This semester, there will be more games.

When I taught ESL immersion, I taught the same class for five hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks. Every morning we started with a game, and we usually ended every afternoon with a game as well. In such a circumstance, the content of the games wasn’t terribly important, as long as they were language-based. Games were a chance to loosen people up, to get tongues and blood moving.

I now see my students for 2 2-hour blocks a week, so games need to be chosen much more judiciously. They need to be directly relevant to course material, and the purpose of them needs to be clear.

In the first real lesson of my travel literature class, last week, we played a game I called “10 People/10 Countries,” a sort of “Find Someone Who…” game (a staple of ESL classes) that I adapted for this course. Students had to find 10 people in the class, each of whom had visited a different country. The rules were as follows:

• Canada doesn’t count.
• The country where you were born doesn’t count, unless you moved away from that country and later returned there on a visit.
• You may write your own name on your list ONCE if you have visited a country outside Canada.
• No name or country must appear more than once on your list.
• The person’s full name must appear (first and family name) in YOUR HANDWRITING (no getting people to write their names for you.)
• A “visit” does not mean stopping at the airport. You must have remained in the country for at least twenty-four hours.
• Be honest! This is a game, and a way to get to know each other, not a fight to the death. Besides, if you appear on the winning sheet, I and your classmates will ask you questions.

When one person had completed her entire sheet, I asked the people on her sheet to talk a bit about their trips, and in particular about their reasons for visiting a particular country. This led into the meat of our lesson, which was about different motivations for travelling.

She won a little Japanese beckoning cat.

This week’s game is a grammar correction game. I culled 25 sentences containing common errors from the texts my intro students wrote on the first day of class. I placed the sentences in an envelope. I divided the class into teams of four. (Another new rule this term: I make the teams/groups.) Each team drew a sentence from the envelope, and they all had 1 1/2 minutes to copy the incorrect sentence on the board and then write the corrected version. (Only one person could go to the board, although they could run back to their team for help; “too many men on the ice” = disqualification from that round.) We went over the sentences one by one, and each team who corrected the sentence properly got a point. Then they all drew new sentences. The team with the most points at the end got stickers. (Yes, stickers. I’m serious. Even 18-year-olds are seriously motivated by stickers.) At the end of term, the person with the most stickers will be rewarded. What’s more, they are being quizzed on all 25 sentences next class.

I’ve had discussions in my MEd courses about whether competitive games are a good idea. (We’ve also discussed whether I’m a lunatic for giving stickers, but I’m holding firm on that one.) It’s certainly true that not being successful at a game can be very discouraging – I have memories of being publicly humiliated, not only at team sports (which I now never play because of deep and lingering psychic wounds) but also at improvisation games and simple classroom activities.

I try to take the edge off this in a couple of ways. First of all, most games are team games, where individual performance is pretty much invisible – if you’re writing on the board but your team is responsible for what you write, you share the defeat with everyone. Also, teams will be switched every time, so any given student has a good chance of being on a winning team once in a while. In individual games, I never ask any individual to perform in front of the class; “10 People/10 Countries” is a good example, where everyone is milling about and concentrating on their own task, and only one person wins, so no one is shamed.

I do agree, though, that competition can lead to problems, but right now I’m feeling that the tradeoff in motivation is worth it – after playing these initial games, my classes were all energized and ready to focus actively on more sedate work. Maybe you have some thoughts on this. Do you play competitive games in your classroom? Why or why not? (Also – if you have games to share, I would be totally grateful, as would others, I’m sure.)


4 thoughts on “Games in the College Classroom

  1. I personally dislike competitive games, but a lot of people (probably more than 50%) love them. So I think your approach, to have games, but take some emphasis off the competitive edge, is just right.

    (I’m coming from management, where all the competitive people are located. They’re out there, and presumably took these English classes when younger.)


  2. Just discovered your blog, and I would love to hear more game ideas — I’m always looking for ways to liven up my developmental English classes. I’ll have to try the stickers. . .


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