I recently attended a HUBS workshop in York on “Learning through games and play”.  When the registration form asks you what your favourite game is and how long it is since you last played with Lego®, you know it is going to be a good day!  These facts were put to good use in the initial icebreaker activity.  Everyone’s answers to the questions on the registration form were printed on small cards along with numbers and all the participants played a Top Trumps®-style game to get to know each other.

We then heard examples of how people had used games in learning and had a go ourselves.  Pen Holland from York described an activity on species sampling she does with her ecology students during the rainy winter months to prepare them for being out in the field once spring starts.  Each table was given a mixed population of Lego® bricks.  We had to sample this population by removing handfuls of Lego® from the bag.  The ultimate aim was to create a species sampling curve but the first step was to decide how many different “species” of Lego® we had in our sample.  This led to a much heated debate!  Were all the red ones the same species?  Were the small bricks juveniles of the same species as the larger bricks?  Some also had spots stuck on them.  Were these individuals ill?  Every group constructed a different species sampling curve as we all had different ideas of what a “species” was.  However, that was the point!  This activity got everyone talking about how to define a species which is a key ecological concept.  As part of Pen’s module, student groups work on the same “population” of Lego® throughout the semester and learn more about it as time goes on.  This was an excellent activity to get everyone talking and I will be using this as an induction activity for our Stage 1 students in October.

Biochemistry jigsaws John Morton 1John Morton from University of South Wales described how he uses jigsaws to assess students on a biochemistry course.  John created a series of “tiles”, each showing one part of a biochemical pathway e.g. a molecule or an arrow or a translocation event.  Students then had to assemble the parts to show the correct pathway.  Often they had not been taught the pathways before in class and so were given time to carry out independent research and make notes before returning to class to assemble the jigsaw.  The students liked the activity and nominated John for a teaching award.

Biochemistry jigsaws John Morton 2


We then heard from Sam Butcher (a Newcastle pharmacology graduate) who showed us Labster – a suite of virtual laboratory simulations.  Current research by the company includes investigating the use of tactile gloves so that the user can simulate touching the laboratory equipment as well as seeing it.  They are also looking into the use of webcams to gauge user emotions and adjust the difficultly of the simulations accordingly.  Impressive stuff!  Mel Lacey talked about her experience of implementing a Society of Applied Microbiology Educational Resources grant to build an app exploring the relationship between form and function in bacteria.  “Bacteria Builder” is due out for iPhone and android imminently!

Lunchtime labyrinth

At lunchtime we were treated to an array of board games set out that we could play and we were encouraged to think about potential ways to adapt the rules of these games for learning activities.  My table tried “Labyrinth”, a game I had not played before but was soon hooked.  Lunch finished far too soon!

After lunch Louise Robinson from the University of Derby gave the keynote.  She discussed how gaming involves several behaviours that we would like to promote in students’ learning e.g. repetition of a skill until it is mastered.

One of the main benefits of using game-based learning in the classroom is the freedom to fail – where students can learn from mistakes in a low- (or no-) stakes environment.  Louise pointed to a survey carried out in 2009 by Miles Berry and Terry Park Life Louise RobinsonFreedman who asked children what their favourite thing you do with technology at home and at school was, and how ICT at school could be made more like ICT at home.  Games featured prominently in the answers to all of these questions.  Louise pointed out that 2009’s children are 2018’s university students so the next generation of HE students are likely to be open to the use of games in learning.  Louise also described her success in teaching SPSS to students by re-naming mark ranges as “ninja” and grandmaster” etc. rather than first, 2(i), and so on.  She described how students actively wanted to achieve the higher levels!  We also got a chance to play a board game Louise has created about wildlife conservation.  Unfortunately we had to stop just as we were getting in to it!

I picked up lots of useful ideas from this workshop (I’ve already bought some second-hand Lego®!) and met people interested in working with us on a new project on game-enhanced learning in the biological sciences.  If anyone from Newcastle University or elsewhere would be interested in being involved, please get in touch.

Have you used games in your teaching?  How have the students responded?

Alison Graham, August 2017