White paper - Latest research on why game shows improve learning in the classroom and online.

Why Games Work


By Dan Yaman, President of LearningWare

Researchers and Educators Agree: Game shows are a great way to reinforce learning and increase content retention.

Playing a game reinforces learning. This is a bold statement that some may dismiss as outrageous. However, countless researchers and corporate trainers have the data and experience to prove that games are one of the most powerful and successful ways to reinforce learning in adults.

"The idea of embedding academic learning in an entertaining format is centuries old, because it works," says Eric Jensen in his book The Learning Brain (Turning Point Publishing, 1995). "Creative presentations afford the opportunity for students to reach social, artistic and emotional goals. But more importantly, in these contexts learning becomes more enjoyable. Learners exercise choice and creativity, and there is a minimum amount of negative pressure."

Just like children, adults enjoy playing games. They like to relax, let their hair down, and even laugh. They remember information that is tied to these strong emotions. When a game is introduced into a serious classroom environment, participants become excited, they compete and, most importantly, they remember the information in the session.

"I can recall every question and answer in the game we won," says Canada Airlines flight attendant Marnie Wilkinson about the game show software she played recently in an annual review course. The tool, called Gameshow Pro from LearningWare, Inc., allows instructors to run Jeopardy-style game shows in the classroom using course and curriculum specific questions.

"When the questions came up, I'd think 'Oh I remember that,' and BANG!, I'd be leaping across the table to get the points," says Wilkinson. Her instructor, Sam Elfassy, decided that the game was a much better way to end the course and reinforce the learning than a traditional written exam or even an oral review. "When new information is transferred in an appealing way, it stays with you," he says, "If your emotions are engaged, you learn more."

"The content of the course - Handling of Dangerous Goods - was pretty boring," Wilkinson adds, "But putting it in a game format made it more fun." She still jests with colleagues about beating them at the game.

Entertained students learn more

Why does the information we learn from games stay with us? Because our emotions rule us. "Positive emotions allow the brain to make better perceptual maps," says Jensen. "That means that when we are feeling positive, we are able to sort out our experiences better and recall them with more clarity." In Laymans terms, the more emotional the experience, the better we remember everything surrounding the experience-including detailed information.

"Game shows engage students in just the right way," says Elfassy, program developer of the Air Crew training department for Canadian Air Lines in Toronto. Elfassy uses Gameshow Pro in many of his courses to verify existing knowledge, and reinforce newly learned knowledge. "It's visually stimulating, and it's exciting and fun to play. Whereas exams are devoid of any engaging elements and increase the stress levels of the students."

Stress relief supports learning

Melody Davidson, training manager for McDonald's Corp. in Seattle agrees. "It's far more effective to do experiential learning," she says. Davidson uses game shows in nine training seminars to reinforce 'nuts and bolts' information like the temperature of the fry vats and garbage collection schedules. "Tests may prove this kind of information transfer, but game shows are more fun and are more effective when reviewing the material. It's a 'do and learn' opportunity that lets students reach conclusions on their own."

Davidson sets up the Jeopardy-style game in a multi-tiered format so that winners compete against each other. The best ones go to the national convention, where they have playoffs for "Top of the Arch" employee awards. Thanks to their experience with Gameshow Pro, her Seattle division won the national competition. "They use the game to see what they know and to practice," she says.

Stress relief supports learning

When training is intensive, games are an immediate way to lower the stress level of students - quite the opposite of looming exams. "Laughter can lower stress and boost alertness," says Dr. Norman Cousins in the book Anatomy of an Illness.

Carla Kaufman, applications knowledge specialist for Lawson Software in St. Paul takes advantage of this exact concept. She uses game shows in the classroom to re-engage students during a heavy two week applications training course. "By the middle of the second week, everyone is tired and a little overwhelmed," she says. "They are stressing about exams and presentations that they have to do. When we start the game, everyone instantly relaxes and has fun. It's like going to happy hour."

She uses Gameshow Pro to review application knowledge in many of these workshops. "Playing the game show makes the students aware of what they did and didn't learn," she says, "It's a much better way to reinforce the lessons of the past few days than to have me stand up and summarize the material."

"A game show is a stress-free and fun way to learn that doesn't diminish the importance of the subject matter," adds Elfassy, "If the trainees are always under stress, the information never reaches their thinking brains. By using game shows instead of traditional quizzes, the stress is removed and learning is maximized."

Teamwork is reinforced

In most cases where a game show is played, trainers group students in large teams with buzzers, and questions and answers are projected on a large screen. It's very physical--which equals boosted learning according to Dr. Max Vercruyssen of the University of Southern California. Dr. Vercruyssen studies how the body's posture affects knowledge-gathering and learning. His research shows that even an activity like standing can increase the heart rate by ten beats per minute. That sends more blood to the brain, which activates the central nervous system to increase neural firing. "Psychologically," he says, "standing up also creates more attention arousal, and the brain learns more."

Dr. Jon Ebbert, chief medical resident of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN, witnessed the result of that increased brain activity when his residents compete in bi-monthly challenges, like "Name That Congenital Abnormality," a Jeopardy-style game that reinforces medical knowledge. "It's is a different way to learn," says Ebbert. "It's an informal learning environment. The residents let their guards down, which makes them more receptive to new ideas, and they are more willing to challenge themselves."

Residents gather on three teams, each with a single buzzer, and compete to respond with "quick and dirty facts" that they need to know on the job, he says. "It's a great way to train emergency medical personnel because it tests for information they need to know on a reflex level. "The fast paced question and answer format forces residents to respond instantly with answers.

Elfassy, at Air Canada, makes similar use of Gameshow Pro to build team spirit and get heart rates pumping. He groups students into teams of 8-10 people, with one buzzer to share. "They have to work together as a team to win the game," he says--and teamwork is part of what he's teaching. "Our research shows that errors on flights are usually not technical, but are attributed to the crew's inability to communicate effectively with each other. Games force them to work with each other, find different ways to communicate, and to divvy up responsibilities more effectively."

"It's a matter of pride to win the game when you are part of a team," says McDonald's Davidson. "Students don't want to look bad, and they don't want to let their teammates down. It gives them an incentive to work harder." "And," adds Kaufman, "it's amazing how a little friendly competition gets even the quiet ones to speak right up."

Instructors see what's being missed

Students aren't the only ones who benefit from games in the classroom. Trainers use it to figure out what parts of their course content need adjusting and what topics need to be reviewed.

"It helps me figure out what students are learning and what they are missing," says Davidson. "I go back and tweak the course content if there are certain questions that are regularly missed."

The combined evidence proves that game shows increase learning retention and improve the overall attitude about training among students who use the game in class. Attendance goes up, and people talk about the training long after it's over.

"I have people who come to class excited to play 'Jeopardy' because they heard about it from someone else who's taken the training," says Davidson. "You don't typically get that kind of excitement about an end-of-class exam."

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