Are Classroom Games Contrary to Intrinsic Motivation?

Are Classroom Games Contrary to Intrinsic Motivation?

In my first year of teaching, I played games as a review activity several times, usually for math.  I did table vs. table, boys vs. girls, white shirts vs. blue shirts, etc.  A few things happened that made me avoid games as a review activity for a while.

I found that everyone would depend on the fastest problem solver for the answer.  They either disregarded their own answer or didn’t try altogether.  I thought “maybe I should have everyone come to a consensus and they all have to write down the work in their journal.”  That turned into slower paced students just getting yelled at; PUT THE ONE THERE!  NOW PUT A 7 THERE!  NOW DRAW A SQUARE THAT LOOKS JUST LIKE MINE!

At the end of the game, it was inevitable that several students would be upset.  Sometimes with themselves, sometimes with their teammates.  The students that probably needed the review the most were the ones getting the least out of the activity.

Was anyone really getting excited to do math or was it all about winning?

It didn’t help that in my first year, I sprung a surprise reward for the winning team- they would be able to eat lunch in the classroom.  That got the losing team furious- they claimed they would’ve done better had they known there would’ve been a reward.

After a few bad experiences and reading a lot on developing intrinsic motivation (which games / points seem to work contrary to), I sort of stopped using games for a while.

This year, my students wanted to review a unit with a game of Jeopardy.  I sought to do so in a manner that would be an enriching experience, not a defeating one; that every student would get a chance to think through the problem at their own pace and wasn’t being rushed by their teams; that students would want to check their work and explain to one another why they got the answers they did.

Instead of doing a whole class game, I had students get into pairs.  Each pair would be playing their own game, but instead of working against one another, they would be working together to get as many points as they could.  The rules were as follows:

  • Before they could put their answer in, they both had to come to a consensus on the answer.
  • If they got it right, they got the points.
  • If they got it wrong, they could still get half-points if they were able to figure out where they made their error.
  • If they couldn’t figure it out, they would still get 1 point if they asked me for help on why they missed it.

HERE’S the website I used to make the Jeopardy review game fairly quickly and easily.

I saw something interesting.  Students who were agreeing on an answer were still going back to re-check their work again before they clicked on the ‘Answer’ button- they wanted to make sure they didn’t make a mistake.  Student’s who finished a problem before their peer wouldn’t share their answer until their peer was done as well. Students who disagreed on an answer discussed their disagreements, finding errors in one another’s thinking, and having AHA! moments.  Students who missed a problem didn’t rush to go onto the next one; they stopped to see where they went wrong, dialoguing about the processes they both took.

In the end, the points didn’t count for anything; they didn’t even compare points with other groups.  Students asked ‘what’s stopping us from just clicking on the answer and getting the points.’  I responded ‘Nothing it all.’  I shared my intent for the activity; to get a chance to review over concepts and work together to clear up any misconceptions.  There was no way to monitor a student racking up points but they would just be cheating themselves of an opportunity.  The real reward was the chance to work together to solve problems, sharing success along the way.  They all seemed to understand.

chGranted, it wasn’t a completely intrinsically-driven activity; in some of their minds it was all about the points. Regardless, students were encouraging one another, teaching each other, and celebrating victories they both had a part in.

I’d love to hear other ideas on how teachers have been able to develop a purely intrinsically-driven classroom.  Do games have their place in an intrinsically motivated classroom?

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By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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