How Do Games Help Us Learn?

In an early post of mine, you can read about a couple of games that I have used in my classes to get students moving, talking and thinking: a getting-to-know-you game, and a grammar relay race.  A few weeks ago, a reader (OnQuicken), left a comment on that old post, asking to hear about more classroom games.

There are many ongoing studies of video and computer games as learning tools.  Educational researchers are also investigating the general concept of play, and its role in learning.  I’d like to look into some of the research in this area, and write about it here in the near future.

For now, though, I’d like to hear about your games.

I expect that if you are a primary teacher, you incorporate games into your teaching.  Do you use any games that would be suitable for, or adaptable to, older students?  I’m especially interested in how teachers of high school, college, university and adult education use games in the classroom. What experiences have you had with playing games?  What are the pros and cons of using them?  What successful games have you used?

Students, can you think of learning games that you’ve found especially effective?

Most importantly, have you seen any evidence to suggest that the games you have played, in the classroom or otherwise, have helped you or your students learn?  What and how?

Image by Mark Daniel


28 thoughts on “How Do Games Help Us Learn?

  1. First I have to say that you always post in great topics!

    As a middle school teacher, I do use games. It usually takes the form of competition, either group or individual. I offer “bucks” as a prize. (I have a “mall” where kids can buy things like an extra hall pass, be the teacher for the day, sit in the teacher’s chair, etc.)*


  2. In my senior year of high school, my creative writing teacher gave us homework: “Write a rap.” Alright, doesn’t sound too bad. The next day, we had rap battles in class. It was a fun exercise for practicing the flow of speech in front of an audience.


  3. I teach cegep (college), first and second year English and Humanities. I like using games to start off a class. I don’t do this every day or it would get repetitive, but the students like it and it wakes them up, gets them laughing, and builds group identity. Complicated board groups don’t work with a large class, but often you can use the deck of cards that comes with a game and improvise. I have used “Urban Myth” in humanities to make students think about sources of knowledge. The deck has a variety of information that you need to declare as Truth or Myth. We divide the class in half, and then the teams argue among themselves to arrive at their final answer (only a few seconds for each card). Here are a few examples from the bottom of the box: “There are alligators living in the New York sewer systems,” “Bats are blind,” or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” An added benefit is that students are motivated to be on time for class so they don’t miss the fun!

    Another game I use is “Panic” –a deck of cards with categories on them (“farm animals, soft things, outdoor sports, pastas, etc.” Students need to name five (or three, or seven –you decide) things in that category. It is amazing how difficult it is to think when you are the one on the spot (and how well you can think when it is not your turn!). I have used this in English to introduce the idea of extemporaneous speaking; it can be modified from the original game by having a student speak for 30 seconds on the given topic (My favourite pizza toppings are onions, ham, pineapple and sweet peppers. This combination is called a Hawaiian pizza, but not everyone in my family enjoys it as much as I do…until 30 seconds are up). I use it in Humanities to loosen students up for the challenge of speaking in front of each other. A game is much less intimidating than a presentation, so it is a helpful stepping stone.

    A third game I have used is “Famous Places.” Four teams try to guess the identity of a well know landmark in the least number of clues possible (5 in total). This helps students appreciate the accumulated knowledge of other students, often students who don’t offer information during regular class discussions can’t resist contributing the answer if they know it, and the others are usually very impressed, so again, great for moral and group building.

    Today in class I used “Amnesia,” a short-term memory game, with my Humanities class at the end of the period for students who had finished their concept maps. We had been talking about the difference between “learning” and “memory,” and they had to post two on-line games and two facts about memory on our class Facebook page, so I thought it would be fun to play a real game as well. This is a very complicated game, but six of us sat at the front around a table and tried it while the others finished up on their computers. Each player draws a card with a phrase that is given to the person beside them who reads it aloud to them. All the cards get read aloud, and then the first player tries to repeat her phrase after all that interference (one of the concepts we had been discussing). Other players can challenge or steal the phrase if they think the player is bluffing. We only moved a few spaces on the board, but the students really liked it, even though it is very difficult.

    The last game I thought I would mention is “Origins.” It is great as a warm-up in English class. Again I just use the deck, not the board, and get students to try to guess the origins of words, expressions, names, and clichés. This game isn’t quite as popular with the students, but as a “wordy,” I love it!


    1. Sharon: OMG, all of these are great. I am especially struck by “Famous Places,” and am smitten with the idea of adapting it to one of my courses – students are reading books they have chosen from a list of 8, as well as one common text. They have presented the books they’re reading to the class, so everyone should be at least a little bit familiar with all the books. It would be fun to play a “Jeopardy”-type game in which I read a quotation and they have to work in teams to identify what book it’s from. Maybe a party game for the last day of class…!


  4. I love all the ideas that have been flowing. I try to use games as much as possible, but don’t want them to become repetitive either as Sharon mentioned. I rely on stations to aid in both classroom management and delivery and practice of information so a game at a station really helps. Several staples of mine include the following:
    Jenga – you can use this for any subject. Write on the wood pieces whatever you like: vocabulary words, math equations, fill-in-the-blank facts, open-ended questions. As students pull out a piece, they must “do the problem, answer the question, create a metaphor with the vocab word”…really limitless.

    Deck of Cards – A regular deck of cards is nearly as versatile. Just the other day we made the red cards negative numbers and the black cards positive numbers and dealt five cards to each student. They had to use their t-chart to help them add/subtract as necessary. The most points wins! (Which is funny when the most points ends up being a -5.) You could write vocabulary words/math problems/etc. on the backs of the cards, and throw them up in the air. Only question up cards have to be answered by your team. Whatever number is on the back of the card are the points you get for a correct answer. Again…lots of possibilities.

    Speaking of review games…Trashketball is a favorite of my students. Each station has a “ticket” out of it with a question of some sort. During the closing section, each ticket is drawn and read. Students who have a correct answer get to shoot a wadded up piece of chart paper into a trashcan (usually a clean empty paper box). There are various marks around the room with different point values for which they can try.

    Smartboards (Promethean boards) are also fantastic interactive tools. You can make “ball pop” games for any subject. Kids LOVE throwing koosh balls at the huge piece of expensive equipment.

    You may be asking for specific brand games, but really a little creativity can make any activity (with the exception of writing a 100 minute timed essay) some kind of game. Wait – you could possibly make a timed essay a game by having a mystery class challenge. After the essay is complete, classes could compete by having each student choose one of their paragraphs and count how many two, three, four, or more syllable words they have used. Those syllables could become points with a paperwad party for the winner.

    I hope you gather some more ideas! I love adding to my collection.


  5. I recently used Whoonu (one of the many Cranium games) with a group of teachers. It is a simple exercise in trying to determine what you think you know about the gathered people. The rules are: 1) each person gets a set of cards with interests named; 2) each person selects to card they believe ‘belongs’ to a person (sitting aside without cards); 3) the person awards points via colored chips to the most accurate cards; 4) everyone rotates to be the “guessed” person. It was a great ice-breaker – many in the group had only just met. Talking about what each person actually likes and dislikes in this playful manner led to a friendly space in which we discussed our professional goals.

    We also played Two Truths and a Lie (each person offers two true and one untrue statements about themselves and the others attempt to guess which is which). Aside from helping us know one another better, we latched on to an idea for using the game with students. If we take a concept being explored in class, small groups (3 people) would have to develop statements about the idea. In math, it was a kind of graph or number property. Social studies and science suggested phenomena and societal dynamics. Story elements and writer biographies were ideas for language arts/reading.

    It seems that games about people and games with conceptual underpinnings have the greatest value. Excellent post. Look forward to your investigation.


    1. Ty: I love Two Truths and a Lie – I have them work together in groups and use it as a practice for oral presentations. In groups of four, three people must make true statements about themselves and one must lie, and the class must try to guess who the liar is. It’s always interesting to find out which of my students are good liars!


      1. Siobhan: That is such a cool twist. I like he additional presentation quality. I also like the opportunity for the students to challenge and support eac other as try to develop more subtle variations on the ‘truh’. No sense having a lie if it’s obvious, right?

        You know, another game we use is 20 questions. It works for anything and helps students refine heir own questioning ability.


  6. When I was a student, few things horrified me more than when the words “we’re going to play a game” came out of a teacher’s mouth. Although I’m sure some classroom games could help learning to a certain extent, for me they were mostly just a source of stress, especially “get to know you” games. I’m one of those people who’s shy, hates being the center of attention, and despises public speaking. I don’t mean to be a downer, but I know I’m not the only person like that, and the idea of playing games that rely largely on social prowess with a bunch of people I don’t know isn’t very appealing.

    If I was taking a CEGEP level (or senior high school) English / creative writing course and I was told I had to take part in a rap battle, I’d honestly be a little annoyed. That’s the kind of thing that belongs in a theatre or drama course (or to a lesser extent, a poetry course). When I took English courses in school, it wasn’t to learn about performing, it was to further my knowledge of reading and writing English.

    Certain games may encourage learning, but sometimes I wish teachers would remember that not everyone is, or wants to be, a social adept.


    1. WTP:

      This is an important point. Although it’s unavoidable that, as students, we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to do, a teacher who relies too much on any one method, including games, risks putting some students in a position where they are really uncomfortable.

      That said, I wouldn’t agree that performance has no place in an English course. In the CEGEP system, in any case, competencies include not just written but also oral communication, and most courses include some sort of oral presentation component. I probably wouldn’t use a rap battle myself, but we do other oral practice activities that inevitably put students on the spot.

      Just as you hate performative games, some students hate individual writing or long-form reading; some students hate working in groups and others hate working alone. The trick is to balance things, and to be clear about the objectives of the activities. Never asking anyone to do anything they don’t like is just not possible, or even desirable, as learning often means leaving our comfort zones.


      1. “The trick is to balance things, and to be clear about the objectives of the activities.”
        It’s also a good point about the differences between students. Some students find the climate of the game to be more confusing and harder to make sense of all the things that they are supposed to be learning while others thrive on the action and do a better job of making applications of what they have been learning. I’ve had students who have learned best while “playing” because it helped them think in a different way from the more academic styles. However, even these students couldn’t learn everything that way–they, too need the academic discipline so they can gain the ability to learn that way, too.


  7. I spent 2 years teaching middle school in a school of mostly Asian kids who grew up in the city. They had a very hard time picturing rural life, let along thinking about it very intelligently. When it came time to study the American pioneers, my co-teacher and I implemented a game based off of the classic computer game The Oregon Trail. The students worked on worksheets from the chapter in groups, and at regular intervals the students had to roll to find out which group member would draw a chance card. The cards often had things like snake-bites and sicknesses, broken legs, and the like which would put the students out of commission for a period of time. My original intentions for the game were to vary the usual classroom atmosphere and to cover the chapter in less time. The first one was accomplished, the second not really, but overall the students seemed to understand the time period a bit better.


    1. This sounds like fun! I like to introduce game-like components into all sorts of activities to get students moving – the simplest ones are to give stickers for the most correct answers (yes, everyone, including college students, likes stickers) or to have students choose cards to form groups.


  8. Can I recommend a book? I have worked a little with one of the authors and seen him in action with some of the games. 101 Classroom Games, Energize Learning in any Subject by Long, Grout and Taylor.


  9. This is a great post, especially as I always think I need to get more games into my teaching. One which I have used when teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets is to take them back to their early schooling and actually draw the woman as described in many sonnets and then turn to Shakespeare’s Nothing Like the Sun. This gets students thinking about the preposterousness of much imagery, cliché and metaphor as well as ideas of love and poetry.


    1. Samuel:
      I often think I should get students to draw more in my classes. One teacher I know breaks the class into 14 groups and then has each group create an image for one line of a sonnet – then they post the pictures up in order and reconstruct the sonnet together. I always thought that sounded like a lot of fun.


      1. It IS a lot of fun to get students drawing their ideas =) unfortunately it also takes a lot more time than other response methods do . . . that’s one of the things I have faced when planning such activities into my classes (especially if you have many students who have this preconceived notion that they can’t draw even stick figures–I always tell them that I can’t draw very well and that they can at least draw as badly as I can, but that doesn’t always convince them. Lol!)


  10. I teach high school science, and I occasionally use games. I like Jeopardy as a review tool – there are some great templates for making the game up as a PowerPoint Presentation, but it can be done with cardboard & envelopes, too.

    When I teach balancing chemical equations, I have my students do a race – in pairs, they have to balance 20 equations. When they have finished, they bring their answers up to me, and I check them. At the first mistake, I hand back their paper – without telling them which one is incorrect. They can usually get an idea based on how long I looked at the paper – but re-checking their answers helps to solidify the concept for them, too. I give out prizes to the first teams that finish.


    1. Galena: I use races a lot too – grammar races are especially fun. I have one where they do it as a relay – they work on a sheet of exercises for one minute and then pass it to a teammate, so that the sheets rotate through the group several times.


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