Turning a Lecture into a Game

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Despite disliking the “-acation” of verbs, I’m really interested in gamification — the use of game elements in other areas, such as education. Reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken helped me to connect some of my own interests in gaming, teaching, and being a mom. I’ve seen firsthand how my son will try to beat a boss again and again, but will abandon a school project in frustration. At the same time, my son and I used to love playing Zelda together and then eventually stopped playing a few of them because they were just too hard. We were willing to try again and again to beat a level, but after a long time had passed, it just wasn’t fun.

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this golden mean of frustration and how to use game elements to inspire students. This is a work in progress, but I did develop one use of Gamification that worked really well. Every semester I end up doing at least one “Judaism 101” lecture. I teach Jewish Studies to mostly non-Jewish students, so regardless of the specific topic, I need to spend some time teaching about the Jewish religion. While my courses are generally not lecture-driven, this class is, by its nature, a fairly one-sided lecture.

Last year I tried something new. I put a few general topics on the board for students — Ritual, Holidays, Torah, etc — and told students to get into groups, making sure that each group had at least one way of accessing the Internet. I gave them 15 minutes to research everything they could find on these topics, and then I asked gave my usual lecture, but asked a lot of questions, giving extra credit to each group for every correct answer.

This activity was fabulously successful. Some groups divided up the labor, with different students researching different aspects. Other groups were fortunate enough to have a member who had already taken a Jewish Studies course, and who knew many of the answers already. While students are sometimes hesitant to look like a “know-it-all” in front of their peers, here the students with more knowledge were of great help to their groups.

The knowledge was student-led, and I filled in the gaps. Because students weren’t simply sitting there passively, they were more engaged with the knowledge I was providing than they might have been otherwise. Because there was a real benefit (extra credit) at stake, students were very committed to the process and mutually supportive.

This isn’t an activity that one would want to use every day, but for specific subjects, it works really well.

I’ve also used game elements to offer extra credit for outside activities and for participating in our class community. These activities were successful, but would have been more so if I had had an app or website that would keep track of these things for students. The thing about games is that they have to have an element of fun, or they become just work.

[Photo: “knightrider game” by Tom Hodgkinson, Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

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