It’s all fun and games – engaging first year human movement students
Students enrolled in the Bachelor of Human Movement study a sequence of four science units. For many years this has been a problem for many of these students as they come to University unprepared for the level of science required to pass these units. In recognition of this, an innovative digital online game (Prensky, 2001a) was developed to provide students with an alternative means of accessing and extending their knowledge in human biology in an enjoyable, yet supportive environment. A questionnaire, containing both closed and open ended questions, was used to survey the use of the game by students.
The results suggested that the game effectively targeted the ‘digital natives’ (Van Eck, 2006a) and those new to game technology, enabling them to acquire and transfer knowledge with positive learning outcomes. Results of the closed questions revealed that a majority (77%) of the respondents recognised that the game had improved their ability to recall foundation knowledge and to use it in a related context. Discussion has highlighted that the outcomes which support student use of a game format include emotional engagement, challenge and a feedback scaffolding system.
Foundation knowledge forms the major component of first year unit content at university level and is the scaffold for developing and expanding learning in successive units, particularly in specific discipline based professional degrees. Traditional presentation methods (i.e., lecture formats) are particularly disengaging for today’s students, tending to produce “uninterested pragmatists who cram for tests, commit the material to short-term memory, and quickly forget it thereafter” (Foreman, 2003, p. 62). Digital and game based learning resources have been available for many years but have increased in complexity and diversity since Web 2.0 applications became available post year 2000 (Alexander, 2006; Cheung, Yip, Townsend, & Scotch, 2008, Geith, 2007; Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009; Jones, Ramanau, Cross, & Healing, 2009; Owston, 2009). Digital Game-Based Learning is defined as “any marriage of educational content and computer games” (Prensky, 2001a, p. 145).
The Game in this study is constructed using a teaching methodology which includes a constructivist approach to knowledge transfer (Macaulay & Cree, 1999) using a spiral curriculum involving iterative processes of scaffolding (Kiili, 2007). In this study, the outcomes which support student use of a game format include emotional engagement, challenge and a feedback scaffolding system. The foundation knowledge in the Game is presented in the format of multiple choice questions (MCQ’s). The MCQ’s are written at different levels of difficulty based around the domains of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning – the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956). The purpose of this paper is to share the results from a pilot study into the use of a digital game based resource aimed at supporting the recall of foundation knowledge and the transfer of that knowledge to similar learning constructs. Current game design and structure This project involved the development and implementation of an online Game to enable students to link content between successive Human Life Science (HLS) units in first year. Bachelor of Human Movement (BHM) students study Human Biology in semester one; a prerequisite for Anatomy and Physiology, a semester two unit.
The content of the unit is delivered using multiple choice questions (MCQ). Each MCQ has five distractors, and one correct answer. The MCQ’s are written at differing orders of difficulty based around the domains of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956). This taxonomy is a framework for organising learning objectives related to curriculum development and assessment. The MCQ’s are written using the revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson, Krathwohl, & Bloom, 2001), where the domain categories (nouns) are converted into “their active verb counterparts” (p. 30). For example, “knowledge” becomes recall or remember, and “application” becomes apply.
The questions written at Bloom’s levels 3 to 6, which examine application, synthesis and evaluation, are regarded as testing higher order thinking. The content of the MCQ’s varies from simple knowledge recall from the long term memory, to combinations of recall and/or application and/or analysis, evaluation and synthesis requiring both short and long term memory. Feedback is available for most questions. The content of the foundation MCQ’s is linked to similar, but more complex content areas throughout the undergraduate degree units. This linking forms part of the feedback as the student progresses through related curriculum content. The feedback is designed as a help system and is available as a choice to the Game player. Sweetser and Dennis (2003), in a study involving first year psychology students, demonstrated that computer games used as a learning resource are improved by the “addition of a help system that provides information to the user at the time that it is most required” (p. 49). When students access the Game for the first time, it is structured to allow access to the first semester foundation unit (Human Biology) only.
This access occurs in the second week of semester two, just after the student has been introduced to the curriculum for the second semester units which draw heavily upon foundation knowledge. Once a prescribed level of competence has been achieved, students can then access the next contiguous units in the Game, and use foundation knowledge and scaffolding mechanisms to attempt questions in the next level (Anatomy and Physiology) of the Game. The Game is designed to reward students for demonstrating and applying knowledge. The rewards increase in value according to the difficulty, application and scaffolding of the conceptual knowledge which is required to correctly answer individual questions.
There is a reward system for certainty of using a correct answer. The rewards are based around scenarios designed to incorporate themes from the unit material. In Human Biology and Anatomy and Physiology, the theme of the Game is prevention of mutation in Human lines. A real-time chat facility is available to prevent isolation and allow social interaction. Engagement and challenge are also provided by allowing the students to interact. Interaction includes competition against each other for the accrued rewards. Prensky (2001a) discussed two forms of interaction in the game scenario: player interaction with the computer; and player interaction with other players. The latter is usually related to feedback.
Player interaction with each other can exist on many levels including challenge and “gamers generally prefer human competitors… Like the Internet, computer games are bringing people into closer social interaction-although not necessarily face-to-face” (Prensky, 2001a, p. 123). The Game is designed to be used on and off campus. Players can use the game in isolation from other members of the student cohort or they can play the game in a computer laboratory and sit alongside each other at different work stations. The design of the Game is such that it is set up to allow play competitively against all other members of the student cohort.
For those players who do not want to use the competitive challenge function, the Game is still a learning experience as they can choose to play simply for exposure to the unit content. Theoretically, all users/players have created a username which does not identify them to other users. In practice, there is keen competition to find out each other’s usernames. This would seem to suggest that for some players, the motivation to play the game is not simply to learn to apply foundation knowledge, but also to be competitive / adversarial towards other members of the student cohort.
A questionnaire, containing both closed and open ended questions, was used to survey the use of the Game by the students. The questions were designed to obtain a variety of information: general demographic data; general computer use; frequency of Game access; opinion regarding the use of a digital Game as a learning tool; perceptions of knowledge recall from Human Biology; and perception of transfer of learning across two core first year units: Human Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology.
Participants comprised 160 students (79 males, 81 females) enrolled in the first year of a UTAS undergraduate degree in the Faculty of Health, Faculty of Education, Faculty of Business and Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology. All students had completed Human Biology in semester one of the first year of their undergraduate degree. Students in Anatomy and Physiology were introduced to the game in dedicated computer laboratory sessions in the second week of semester two. Each session contained approximately 25 students. Students could either work alone or in pairs. All students were required to logon and interact with the Game during the one hour computer laboratory session. Students then had open access to the Game for the remainder of the semester.
Results from this pilot study were evaluated using a qualitative research methodology including descriptive statistics and phenomenology. Data regarding gender, degree and login statistics were collated according to commonality of response and presented as rudimentary summations about the sample cohort and their respective responses. Some of the interpretations are subjective in nature, particularly those based around the open-ended questions.
Whilst phenomenology usually relies on in-depth interviews and responses, it also uses the experience of participants and derives theoretical propositions from their narrative perceptions (Hansen, 2006). In order to assess the representative nature of the questionnaire responses of the total Anatomy and Physiology cohort, data on electronic logons by user were compared to questionnaire responses to game interaction. The data indicated that the questionnaire respondents, as a percentage, approximate the total number of students who logged on one to two times, and three to five times, but not more than five times.
Consequently, conjecture regarding the Anatomy and Physiology student cohort, extrapolated from the questionnaire data analysed in this pilot study, is only be about students who logged on to the Game one to five times. This was 92% of respondents. Fifty students, representing 31% of the total cohort (n=160), returned completed questionnaires. Respondent gender was evenly represented across the degrees, except for Bachelor of Health Science where 75% of respondents were female. It can be seen that 66% of respondents reported revisiting the game after the initial, compulsory tutorial.
Of the two largest cohorts, 86% of Bachelor of Health Science respondents revisited the game compared to only 50% of the respondents. Students’ reasons for not revisiting the Game included: I couldn’t get many questions right so I kept losing points (respondent no. 8) Getting questions wrong! (respondent no. 24) I had to know things to be good. (respondent no. 25) Responses in relation to student engagement with the Game show that, of the respondents, 54% admitted to enjoying playing any type of computer games while 90% revealed they enjoyed playing this particular Game. Closer scrutiny of engagement with the Game by gender, suggests that what we are seeing with the total number of respondents, ie, enjoyment of the Game by those who don’t normally play computer games, is almost entirely due to female engagement with the Game.
Ninety percent of female respondents said that they enjoyed playing the Game even though only 35% of females responded that they usually played other computer games. In comparison, 90% of male respondents enjoyed playing the Game, with 84% replying that they usually played other computer games. Results indicate that 80% agreed that playing the Game helped them recall Human Biology knowledge and 74% agreed that the Game helped them to link content knowledge between the unit modules.
When asked what they most liked about the game, several respondents commented on the efficacy of the Game as a resource for knowledge recall: Helped to recall info and inforce (sic) confidence in knowledge of material (respondent no. 28) Great revision especially for multiple choice (respondent no. 19) Some acknowledged the usefulness of the Game as a resource for linking content between units (transfer of learning): It helped link study between different units (respondent no. 31) Avatars are funny and helps relate Human bio to anat & phys.(sic) (respondent no.3) Still others recognised they were actually learning; and enjoying it: More than just regurgitating information (respondent no. 34) Fun way to learn (respondents 16, 30)
The results suggest that the Game effectively targeted the ‘digital natives’ (Van Eck, 2006b). The overall mean age of the total cohort (160 students) was 21 years. .The range of the mean ages over the degrees was 19-21 years. Conversely, the educational background of the cohort was quite diverse with a TER spanning 40.00 to 97.75. This may well have implications about the number of times a student needed to revisit the game to complete the module. The Human Movement students and the Health Science students had the lowest TER (mean 66.19, 77.89 respectively) and these were the respondents who interacted most with the game. Anecdotally, some of the higher TER scored students rapidly completed the first module (Human Biology) in the initial session and then, on beginning the next module (Anatomy and Physiology), became frustrated when they were unable to correctly answer the questions.
This may have been because they hadn’t yet been exposed to the full semester content. Reasons for disengagement, as reported in the questionnaire, support a lack of previous unit content knowledge. This cannot be judged as a weakness of the Game, because its function is to help recall content knowledge and to assist students in making links between using data in different contexts/domains. Clearly if the students don’t have the foundation knowledge to begin with, then they cannot recall or transfer it1. When discussing DiSessa’s viewpoint on challenging a student, Gee (2003) said that “the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student’s competence” (p. 3), and that good digital games “incorporate the principle of expertise.
They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve” (p. 3). Gee further believed that not giving students this challenge, which is necessary to allow them to overcome the frustration by developing and evolving their learning skills, only produces ‘good’ students who are just good at ‘doing school’. Whether or not respondents played other computer games did not seem to influence their enjoyment of this Game. In fact 90% of respondents indicated that they enjoyed the Game even though little more than half normally played other computer games. This seemed to be reflected by the gender of the individual as male respondents were fairly consistent about liking the Game and enjoying playing other computer games. The female respondents however, admitted to enjoying the Game to a greater degree than would be expected, considering the very small proportion who normally played other computer games.
These results suggest the format of the Game was such that it not only maintained the interest of habitual computer game users (mainly male in this instance) but succeeded in capturing the interest of those students (mainly female in this study) less inclined to engage in game playing. Prensky (2001b) raised the issue of gender, and whether digital games are a ‘boytoy”’ or, indeed, if females will use them to the same degree. He quoted researcher, Nicholas Donatello, who, when speaking of gaming in the United States, says “there isn’t much of a difference between boys and girls (use of digital games) anymore, and that’s true in all age groups” (Prensky, 2001b, p. 28). In addressing the issue of whether males and females may prefer differently styled games, Prensky suggested that whilst some females might prefer ‘interaction’ rather than ‘action’, that fundamentally, ‘an exciting game is an exciting game’, and gender is not an issue if the games are engaging and enjoyable. One of the aspects of this pilot study was to determine if the students themselves could identify whether or not the Game assisted them with foundation knowledge recall and making links between unit material and concepts.
Results of the closed questions (questions 13 & 14) revealed that a majority (77%) of the respondents recognised that the Game had improved their ability to recall foundation knowledge and to use it in a related context. The directed nature of the questions did not seem to influence the students’ responses because answers to the open ended question about what respondents most liked about the game (question 20), supported their answers to questions 13 and 14. For example, respondent no. 34 agreed the Game had helped with recall and making the links between units and commented the Game was “More than just regurgitating information”. Respondent no.3 on the other hand, thought the game helped make the links between units but didn’t help with content recall. These answers correspond with his opinion that the Game “helps relate human bio to anat & phys (sic)”. A few respondents who thought the game useful for Human Biology content recall, were either unsure if it helped make content links or thought that it didn’t.
These respondents all commented the Game helped with revision (respondents 2, 28, 48), or to recall Human Biology content (respondents 28, 35). At present, the conventional measure of transfer of learning, is the students’ ability to be successful in their assessments and ultimately to graduate from university. Since the completion of the pilot study, preliminary analysis of the end of semester examination results from 2008 suggests that respondents’ knowledge recall and transfer of learning in the Anatomy and Physiology unit has increased.
In 2008 the average theory exam result was 53.1% compared to 48.3% in 2007 and it was also the first year where an average theory exam result of above 50% was recorded for the Anatomy and Physiology unit. The end of semester examination contains both Multiple Choice questions (MC) and Short Answer questions (SA). In comparing MC and SA sections; in 2007, MC average was 23/40 compared to 25.3/40 in 2008 and SA average was 59.4/125 in 2007 compared to 62.3/125 in 2008. These increases in students’ examination scores also need to be considered in the context of any other pedagogical methodologies and platforms changed within the unit, such as the incorporation of Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) which were also introduced into the unit in 2008.
Whilst game based resources can be shown to be effective and enjoyable tools for engaging students with core material and with helping students recall knowledge, there is not wide consensus in defining the mechanisms by which this occurs. Ultimately, the benefit to the students, in terms of the progressive transfer of foundation knowledge between units, and its application in more complex situated contexts, is the aim of all higher education facilities and of this project. A digital game based resource, which fulfils these requirements by engaging and motivating students, will be a valid and valuable tool in the portfolio of teaching and learning resources. Within the limitations of consensus about the efficacy of digital game resources and transfer of learning generically, there seem to be indications of positive outcomes in students’ recall, application and transfer of knowledge.
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