Suzanne Nelson’s classroom is a flurry of activity in which students turn scientific papers into games. That’s right, Nelson’s students are responsible for creating games that reinforce concepts found in rigorous scientific papers and then lead their classmates in playing that game. Students use a variety of skills sets and approaches to learning to solve puzzles, remember data, and incorporate it into the game on behalf of the team. Students are also able to bring aspects of their background or personal interests into the classroom through their design. The diversity of Nelson’s students and the various ways they approach the topics at hand is what drives the success of gaming and learning. Return to Top
Suzanne Nelson teaches a small, senior-level, critical thinking course in wildlife nutrition. The university’s critical thinking requirement stipulates that students learn to debate and discuss findings in scientific literature. With this goal in mind, Nelson set out to design an engaging course that drew from diverse skill sets—critical thinking and analysis skills, presentation and communication skills, leadership skills. When considering what she could use to engage students in scientific literature while simultaneously requiring them to use these various skills, she had an epiphany: games!
The class meets twice each week for 75 minutes. On Tuesdays, Nelson lectures on a topic. For Thursday, the class is assigned two scientific papers to read related to that topic. At the beginning of the semester, students sign up to present on one paper during the semester. Their task on presentation day: to deliver a brief summary of the paper using a PowerPoint presentation, summarize the paper into a small, digestible sound-bite, and then facilitate a game that requires their classmates to use the concepts in the paper to play.
What games do they play? If you can think of it, they’ve probably played it! Nelson says that she encourages students to select a game that they’ve played before to use as a model—Bingo, Monopoly, Memory, Chutes and Ladders are common. But, students also creatively adapt games like football or telephone to the aims of the course. And, others make up something new altogether—like the student who made feces pellets using crushed Oreo cookies and then stuffed them with color-coded seeds. The class had to dissect the pellets, use a coding key to decipher the seeds, and decide what type of animal produced the pellet. There’s one unbendable rule, though: no game can be repeated; each student has to come up with a new creative model.
“It’s been good for my brain,” Nelson says. And, it appears that it’s also good for the students’ brains. “When they take those final exams they know exactly what I wanted them to know,” Nelson boasts. She observes that it takes the students a “certain level of sophistication” to read an article, reduce it down to a sound-bite, and then construct a game about that sound-bite that draws on the details in the article. She meets with each student prior to their presentation. When they meet with her, she estimates that each student has read their assigned paper at least four times in order to create the presentation and game.
Nelson’s approach seems to stimulate high levels of engagement between her students and the course topics. On Tuesday, during lecture, Nelson observes that her students listen with rapt attention. “They know that what they learn on Tuesday will help them to win the game on Thursday,” she says. They read the papers in advance of Thursday’s games because they don’t want to be a drag on their team. And, then, the games require them to interpret, digest, and restate the information presented in the paper in a variety of ways. When all is said and done, her students know the material exceptionally well. Return to Top
Nelson’s example draws on the diversity of her students to make her class creative, exciting, and fun. Her students get to share pieces of themselves with their classmates via their game selections—often they choose games they played as children.
The classroom, on game day, is an exemplar of active learning. Students are required to engage with the material using multiple modalities—auditory, by listening to the summary report; visually, via the PowerPoint presentation; experientially, through the game. The student presenters also engage with the material on macro- (big idea) and micro- (detail-oriented) levels.
Nelson’s approach can be adapted across a variety of fields and disciplines because it, largely, relies on the students’ creativity and not on the instructor’s area of expertise. The approach is, however, limited by the level of student engagement with the material. Nelson cites the fact that her course is for seniors who are required to critically engage with a specific topic. The students select her course’s specialized topic because their interested in it. Nelson worries that this approach would be difficult to implement in a large course or a course where students aren’t willing to engage with and be interested in the material. Return to Top
Recommendations for Adaptation:
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- Consider which courses you teach that may lend themselves to this kind of active and integrative learning. Nelson has found that this practice works best with advanced students who have a strong background and interest in the field or topic of the course.
- Think about how will you structure the week so that students anticipate and get used to a pattern that is different than their other classes. For instance, Nelson teaches two days each week instead of three or more. On Tuesdays, she lectures. On Thursdays, the students play games. This pattern helps students adapt to the course and know what to expect on a given day.
- Recognize that students will need support to develop these kinds of activities. Nelson meets with each of her students in advance of their presentation and game day. She has this meeting in lieu of her own preparation time. This works nicely because she does not have to prepare a lecture or other material for the day; instead, that is the student’s responsibility. But, it’s important to note that this strategy doesn’t mean that Nelson does less preparation for the course. It’s simply a different kind of preparation—that of supporting students’ preparation.
Things to Consider:
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- It’s important that the first student set the stage for a high-energy, thorough presentation and game. So, it’s critical for the instructor, according to Nelson, to explicitly define what they expect from the students. Nelson uses rubrics in conjunction with archived materials to accomplish this goal. Nelson archives all the materials from past courses—presentations and example game ideas—to provide a model for her students to follow.
- Consider how you will support students who have specific learning needs that may interfere with their ability to play. If you have a student with a physical disability, you may want to meet with them before the games get underway to discuss how they’d like to participate and what support they’ll need. If you have students with hidden or learning disabilities, consider how you can help them adapt to this dynamic and, likely, fast-paced learning environment. You may consider consulting with your university’s office for students with disabilities. They may be able to help you adapt your course to meet a variety of needs.
Johson, D.W., R.T. Johson, and K.A. Smith. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom.
Interaction Book Co, 2006.
Meyers, C. and T.B. Jones. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. Return to Top