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Academics4 reasons why play is crucial to learning

Albert Einstein once declared that “play is the highest form of research”, and modern neuroscience has proved that the great theoretical physicist was right: games can and do play a key role in cognitive development.

As a lecturer, teaching students through play forms an important part of my curriculum. We just have to look at nature to see proof of this: lions cubs play to learn how to fight, while baby gazelles pursue each other to practice flight. Learning to fight or to flight is an essential element of survival for animals, and ‘Play it until you do it’ forms a key part of this learning process. 

Here I outline why it works and give practical examples of learning through games and role playing.

1. Increasing engagement and motivation

Many people ask if play really has a place in the serious business of higher education. Neuroscience research proves that lions and gazelles – as well as Einstein – have it right: using game elements in non-game contexts, otherwise known as gamification, increases the engagement and motivation of students, capturing their interest to continue learning and having a positive influence on their classroom behavior.

 

2. Pleasure rewards

Another positive impact of gamification is that it activates the brain’s reward and pleasure center, and in the process improves the students’ learning experience. Games during which a person wins or receives positive feedback can activate the brain’s pleasure circuits by inducing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Educational games that have an element of winning a challenge or successfully achieving a goal are thought to have the same influence. The association of pleasure that gamified education brings results in students developing a long-lasting affinity for the academic subject and for solving otherwise complex problems.

 

Delphine's students

 

3. Promoting critical thinking

In Business Ethics, one of the classes I teach, students are expected to demonstrate critical thinking. However, often their approach is naïve, with simplistic analysis of problems. For example, if we are talking about corruption, they might simply say that corruption is bad, and that people should stop doing it. The reality of the issues and solutions around corruption are of course far more complex than that.

Through playing the ‘Escape Game’, my Business Ethics students are able to move away from the simplistic mindset of ‘that’s bad, people should stop’. A couple of days before we kick off the game, students are asked to write down a code of conduct for their group. On D-Day, just before they are given their escape challenge, I inform students that I will be observing them while they are trying to solve the challenge and evaluating their ability to respect the code of conduct they set out earlier. Suddenly, ethics becomes both challenging and real.

 

4. Responsible decision making

In my Marketing class, critical thinking often means embracing responsible decision-making processes. I bring the concept to life for students, particularly in relation to social media, through the Virtual Influencer Challenge. This involves students creating a virtual influencer on Instagram who needs to reach a specific target audience. Students are given a non-gender doll and are expected to create a full profile for their character on social media.

One group, for example, had to create an influencer targeted at reaching people suffering for diabetes. They created Hazel, and through social media posts students shared and outlined her journey since her diabetes diagnosis, including telling her audience about her daily life, her mindset, and her recipes.

Through this social media role play, students get to analyze and answer, in a critical way, the question, “What is my voice? How do I use it to communicate a message?”. They also get to experience a different, behind-the-scenes version of social media. Most students, when reflecting on their experience after the game, mention that they now view Instagram in a very different light.

These games – or ‘edutainment’, where we combine education and entertainment – give an indication of how education is shifting to engaging, fun modes of delivering better learning experience. As Swiss Education Group lecturers, and game masters, we are excited about exploring and growing this new learning environment.

 

Written by Delphine Blin-Genin, Learning Strategy Consultant and Lecturer at César Ritz Colleges Switzerland.

 

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