Gamified Learning and Engagement - The Labster Podcast Episode 2
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, my name is April Ondis, and I'm a blogger and writer for Labster, creator of virtual lab simulations for science students. As always, I'm proud to say that Labster is guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving problems like climate change and curing diseases like cancer. If you're listening to this podcast, we know that you likely also share that mission. So thank you. And let's get started.
April [00:00:37] Today's episode is about the topic of engaging students using the principles of gamification.
April [00:00:43] With me is my friend and fellow Labsterite, SJ Boulton. SJ is an educational designer and former university lecturer whose current work involves developing Labster's internal curriculum for new packages of virtual lab simulations for science students in high school, college and university courses. So SJ is great to get the chance to talk with you again.
SJ [00:01:07] The pleasure is all mine, April. It's so nice and this is such a great topic.
April [00:01:11] Well, I've been looking forward to having this conversation all week and just doing everything I can to read up on how student engagement and motivation impact playing learning games. So let's get right to the topic of student engagement. One of the most common concerns teachers have shared with us at Labster about their teaching during the pandemic is how difficult it is to capture and maintain students' attention, interest, and engagement with their lessons. And for some teachers, online classrooms look like those empty little black boxes that appear when students turn off their Web cameras, which is terrible.
April [00:01:51] It's so sad! It's a challenge to get students involved. And, you know, it's really a bummer and a downer for teachers who are doing everything they can to share what they feel as their own genuine interest and passion for the subject they're teaching. So just thinking of any teachers who are listening, the first question I have to ask is whether a game of learning experiences can truly help students to be engaged in class. And if they can do that, can they also enhance real learning?
SJ [00:02:22] It's so tricky, isn't it, April? I think what's one of the most tricky things about Kim Feiglin is that it has a tendency to encourage almost like a badge seeking behavior in our students. For example, if we are introducing a one-shot session or one-shot learning session, let's say a workshop or some kind of practical experience, and the students can very easily see what the rules of that gamified learning session are, I would include myself in the group of people that would find out what those rules are and run them and win that session being slightly competitive as I am.
SJ [00:03:01] But no, if a student is just looking to kind of win the session or to get to the end and get the grade by sticking to the rules, learning what they are and really doing whatever they need to do to satisfy those criteria, then all we're doing is teaching a student to get that badge and to learn the rules. And that isn't always the same as achieving a deep learning experience, despite the assessment at the end being satisfied or the the test being looking good for that student.
SJ [00:03:33] And I think as well, a component of that is trying to figure it out why it is we want to include gamified learning scenarios at all in our course. I'm all for it. Obviously, there's a huge conversation behind that. But I'm like, what's driving me to include gamified learning? Is it that you're looking at your course or your program and looking at a trouble spot where students really struggle with engagement on a particular topic because it's difficult or because it's boring?
SJ [00:04:02] I remember trying to learn the protein codon wheel as a student and just being like this is so dull. How do I remember this? And like, bless my lecturers, they try to make it fun, so hats off to them. But yeah, are you looking at a course and trying to spot-treat something that's tricky? Or are you looking to really elevate the program as a whole?
SJ [00:04:25] Because to me and what I can see from the literature, gamification is something that can be done in lots of different ways. But what seems to be true across the board is that the consistent implementation of gameplay-like strategies within a program of learning is what's key to really see the benefit of a gamified scenario. So it needs to be integrated throughout the course. And to give you an example, although it's not, some people might not consider it a gamification tool. If we look at the flipped classroom technique for teaching, you've heard of that, right?
April [00:05:00] Of course. Yeah, that's very popular.
SJ [00:05:02] Yeah. So common. But if we look at the literature, we see a lot of success in one shot scenarios where it's like, I want to teach this topic, we're going to do a flip classroom, I'm going to test the students at the end of the session, and I'm going to test them again in six weeks. And often we see great reports in the literature of retention over that six week period. However, if we look at studies are more longitudinal, looking at endpoint tests at the end of the course, that one shot implementation of flipped classroom often falls short of long-term retention.
SJ [00:05:36] And this is something we see consistently in the literature that as a one shot, flipped classroom doesn't work very effectively. Where we see in the literature that classroom has been successful over the long term is where it's been implemented consistently through our course. So it's more of a paradigm than a treatment strategy to make the comparison.
SJ [00:05:56] And I think the same is true for gamification. We can do a one shot teaching scenario just to make something a bit more fun. But unless we're employing these teaching strategies consistently within courses, we're not necessarily going to see that benefit.
April [00:06:10] I guess what comes to mind is that a topic that I know you've talked about before, and that's, you know, that some learning experiences boil down to being edutainment, learning games that are fun to play, but they really seem to miss the mark on actual learning. So I was talking to someone the other day about that, a game where you do something like shooting alien invaders until you die and then only then do you get asked to solve a problem or take a learning challenge.
SJ [00:06:41] Not to put the cat among the pigeons, April, but do you not see a kind of parallel there with some traditional didactic teaching? Like, "I'm going to do the series of lectures, then I'm going to do assessment at the end, and if they pass the assessment, then they've totally won, they've totally been successful. Teaching has been achieved!". What's the difference between doing that and having a shooting game with a math question at the end.
SJ [00:07:06] When you talk about the game, so we play the game or we do, for example, the shooting game it's all about vectors and changing direction and angles, and then we have a math problem at the end, there's a few things we need to consider. One: there's the actual game element of it, do we have small assessments throughout that game or small check-in points throughout that game play, where we check that the user or the student sorry, is actually developing their understanding of the underlying concept?
SJ [00:07:41] So are we checking in that game that we are actually building knowledge? Is it done in a constructive way? Does it start easy and get hard? All teaching should start with the basics and build up into something that's more tricky, and sometimes it drops down a few levels. Video games do this beautifully.
SJ [00:07:59] I remember, I reflect on the first time I ever played Tomb Raider and tried to get Lara Croft over the tutorial. I had to go over walls, I had to jump over walls, and I'm like, "Oh, they were doing this, they were doing constructive learning with me during this tutorial phase". And it checked in every time. Jeeves would come along and be like, you don't seem to be doing too well, mum.
SJ [00:08:20] And I recognize now as an educator exactly what was going on. That was a really well-constructed tutorial that was frustrating at times. But the fail based element that was within that tutorial of the game helped me learn how to maneuver the character through the landscape. And it was really important so that I could then play the rest of the game. And it made me a competent beginner controlling Lara Croft.
SJ [00:08:42] Lots of gamified learning ignores that process of starting easy and getting harder with little checkpoints along the way, and instead tries to just put something fun together and have a one-shot assessment at the end that checks the full learning. And those summative assessments aren't necessarily helpful for the student in recognizing whether they're learning or not.
April [00:09:09] I would love to go back and forth a little bit about the differences between those two types of assessments, summative and formative, because I think from my understanding, that has a lot to do with Labster's approach to making learning experiences. Can you kind of talk more about that?
SJ [00:09:26] Yeah, for sure. Just to kind of go under the hood a little bit, when people like myself, so simulation directors or content developers, are looking at how to create a new simulation, what we start with is our learning goals and our learning objectives alongside things like, who is our target audience? What is the educational background? What is the topic that we're trying to teach? So we have these goals and objectives and we start plotting a timeline of the simulation in terms of missions. So Labster is mission-driven. We have the tutorial, obviously. That's a "Have you played Labster before? Click and learn how to navigate" and then we have a series of bite-sized missions throughout the simulation, each of which we as the guiding should include at least one quick question.
SJ [00:10:14] And the aim of that quiz question is to check in with the student and ensure that the small amount of teaching that's been done in that mission just immediately preceding has been achieved. So we're just checking in and reviewing that that small amount of learning in the mission has been successful. So we'll do that for the first mission.
SJ [00:10:37] Then we might move to the next mission, which is on a different topic. So we might introduce what an antibody is. Then we might move to doing that lab-based experiment or we might do some pipetting to make an ELISA plate or we might do a blood spot test to look for blood types, something like that.
SJ [00:10:53] So we've built upon the prior knowledge, and the quiz questions that are contained within that mission would be checking that they understood, the student understood the protocol, that they knew things like why they have to change their pipette tip or that they knew what the positive and negative control were or what they anticipated a result to be. In fact, that might not even be a quiz question. It might be a hypothesis, something else that we use, so we get a student to make a guess about what the outcome of an experiment would be, and then the conversations that they have later in the simulation reflect upon their choice at that point. So we can be a little bit more responsive with some of the mechanics within the simulation, whether they were right or wrong, and then have set conversations depending on the outcome versus their hypothesis. A little bit responsive, build in there.
April [00:11:43] A little response and I think it helps to build a student's sense of competence and confidence in their play, doesn't it?
SJ [00:11:50] Absolutely, yeah. I feel like Labster does a good job. I feel one thing that we do really well is help develop this kind of competent beginner mindset, which is something that my teaching hero, Steve McHanwell taught me about this idea that you don't have to be the expert by the end of a teaching scenario, but you know enough about it to go away and really satisfy your curiosity or to fill in the gaps where your knowledge are.
SJ [00:12:17] So to me, I would say that my personal view is that Labster is a really great summative tool and for embedding early knowledge and helping a user or helping a student recognize where their weaknesses are so they can build upon them outside of the lab.
SJ [00:12:37] I'm not sure how Labster is viewed by educators. I'd be really interested to see whether they see it as a formative tool, meaning it's something that helps the student learn as they go along and it checks their knowledge as they go through their course. And that's a wider question about how an educator would implement Labster within their program, or within their course, and whether educators see it as a more summative tool.
SJ [00:12:59] So it's a thing it's a capstone activity that checks whether or not learning throughout the course has actually happened, in which case the score, for example, that a user got in Labster would count towards their grade. I don't know how educators see that. And I'd be really interested to know what you kind of think, April, as somebody who's exploring our catalog.
April [00:13:20] Yeah, as I've been exploring, you know, just our simulations, both our older simulations, the newer ones that are under development, but then also having the chance to hear from our current customers, the teachers who are teaching every day with Labster. I would say there's a little bit of both, because it all depends on how the instructor has chosen to integrate Labster into their curriculum, into the learning that they're providing to their students.
April [00:13:50] So I would love, though, if some of the people who are listening right now to our podcast would leave a comment or just reach out and get in touch on social media or through email, even their April at Labster dot com and shoot in a quick answer. How are you teaching with Labster? Is it summative or formative in the way you use it? I would definitely love to hear that.
SJ [00:14:18] What, no one says on a postcard, April?
April [00:14:19] Postcards are also accepted. They may take a while to be delivered but we accept postcards.
April [00:14:29] So another thing that I really have discovered that I absolutely love about Labster is that we always have this amazing story behind each of our virtual lab simulations and all of the learning experiences take place within the Labster story world, where we have labs that are in forests and deserts underwater or on Mars or even on our imaginary exoplanet Astakos IV and these to me seem like elements of a video game. But then I have to wonder, would. You say, is Labster really a game or is it a serious learning tool?
SJ [00:15:08] This is really interesting because if you were to survey all of the creators at Labster, I think you'd get a real spread of answers internally, let alone just for me and yourself. So a little while ago, April, I sent you a link to a simulation that I'm working on at the minute, which may be released soon. Just saying it's very exciting and I've really enjoyed making it. But it was built using a new paradigm for constructing simulations at Labster. Personally, I feel really proud of the work that myself and the team have produced on this short game. And the simulation's about spectrophotometers, which is a real mouthful to say. Dr. One acknowledges that in the simulation.
SJ [00:15:54] Yeah, but I remember as a student, part of the thing that's informed the design of this is that the Spectrophotometer was a real black box of stuff that worked. Sample goes in, absorbance comes out, and that was the data are used for analysis later. I never really understood how it worked. And it actually wasn't until I became an educator that I truly understood how a spectrophotometer works, like you were never going to be allowed to take on a part, never going to be able to legitimately break one. That was an expensive mistake to make. So the core of this simulation is that we wanted to teach the fundamentals of spectrophotometry by really getting under the hood of the instrument. So as part of the simulation, the user is presented with the components of a spectrophotometer and goes through a series of building games and they are kind of games, but we'll come onto that later.
SJ [00:16:51] There go through a series of activities where they build a spectrophotometer and the first one they build is not a spectrophotometer, it's just getting across the idea that we use light to make measurements on a sample. Then we move to level two and we have to build a slightly more complex setup that includes more components. And once they've successfully done that, they move to level three and they build a spectrophotometer, more like how it would appear on the bench. So it's more compact, it's got mirrors, it's a little bit more complex. And the final level, the boss level, is having to interpret something to choose what wavelength to use with the spectrophotometer.
SJ [00:17:26] As part of the story, the user does that because they need to do some measurements in the lab, but they've come to Mars and they have to build this spectrophotometer before they can actually use it in the lab. So this kind of a segue to the implementation aspect of the simulation that comes later and where they learn how to use the spec as a researcher. And then a final activity later where we talk about data interpretation and using the [inaudible].
SJ [00:17:53] So we go through three kind of acts of the simulation in about 20-25 minutes, where each act of the simulation has its own levels of intensity and its own level of complexity to work through. So it takes a lot of cues from those Lara Croft tutorial like building of complexity. But all along the way, because the user is getting feedback in terms of is the setup correct, yes or no. And the feedback is, does the machine work? And they can see the light path moving through. The specter of it looks so pretty, does it not, April?
April [00:18:33] It's beautiful. It's like a rainbow prism effect.
SJ [00:18:38] And the aim is not to necessarily awe or wow the student with something that looks great. The aim is that they see what's happening in the spectrophotometer and that allows them to make a decision like, oh, that's not right. I'm supposed to be measuring just a single wavelength, but I've got a whole rainbow going on with the detector. Something's not right. So being able to match the goals that are set for them with what they actually see or are described in the case of accessible versions, should allow them to make decisions and iteratively learn on their own as they move through the levels. And that's a lot to do in a ten minute, I think seven, seven to ten minutes for the first part.
April [00:19:16] Yeah, it took me just all just under ten minutes. And interesting for me was it didn't feel like it because I really got engrossed in the kind of discovery process. A spectrophotometer was new to me, and yet I wound up feeling like, hey, I'm pretty good at this as I progressed.
SJ [00:19:36] April, what does the prism during the spectrophotometer?
April [00:19:38] It refracts the light!
SJ [00:19:40] It does, well done and yeah, so you know what, I'm actually really quite heartened to hear that you as a person who was naive to the Spectrophotometer before playing the simulation, actually know what some of the components do and understand how it works. That makes me really happy as an educator.
April [00:20:01] You know, it was fab and I was conscious that it was getting progressively more detailed and complex, but I felt confident that I could do it as I made progress.
SJ [00:20:13] And I think we've kind of touched on something that really helps me answer this question of is Labster a game or is Labster a serious learning tool? I think we're somewhere in the middle.
SJ [00:20:23] And your experience of playing the simulation as a person naive to the topic, I think illustrates that your approach to the simulation was one of discovery. I think you said that yourself. You were viewing the experience of the simulation through the lens of discovery. I want to know what the simulation is, how we build and what it looks like, the types of activities we have. So you were curious to learn about it. And it's really heartening to hear that while you're in it, you felt that your confidence increased on the topic despite not having to know there was no need for you to learn what Spectrophotometer is, but you've learned it anyway. And now you're a chemist. That was your lens that was applied to that scenario.
SJ [00:21:07] What I think is tricky is that that isn't necessarily the lens that a student is looking at Labster simulations from. To a student, the lens that they're looking at is that this is an assignment sometimes. So if this is something that's set within their program, they are viewing the Labster experience through the lens of homework or through the lens of assignment or through the lens of just work in general, unless they've purchased it for themselves as a revision tool, in which case maybe they are looking through the lens of fun.
SJ [00:21:36] But for the most part, when Labster is implemented as part of a course, definitely this lens of kind of schoolwork is coloring the way that they see the simulation as the lens of discovery colored your experience. So, is it a game? I feel personally that if the motivations that compel a person to engage with a set of rules and choose to follow them to complete an objective, if that comes from a place of entertainment or fun, and yeah, it's a game. So maybe it was a game for you, April, because it was from discovery and fun.
April [00:22:10] Yeah.
SJ [00:22:11] Is it a game for a student who's looking through it from the lens of work? They're not looking for entertainment, they're looking for learning? It's not a game to them. But given how dark teaching can be for a student at the minute, especially with some process, with not being around their friends so much, I'm hoping that going into these virtual sims and being immersed in a different space for a little while can lighten the load and have the kind of lightening effect of a game for the students and help them have space to engage with the learning on a slightly different level. That's the best we can hope for.
SJ [00:22:47] For Labster, I feel the simulations present an opportunity to implement a resource and build activities around it within that program. I would hope that in the future, well, now especially, but maybe in the future, once our catalog is even more well developed, that we can satisfy more components within a greater number of teachers' courses so that Labster is something that can be implemented consistently throughout the course and really embedded is part of the curriculum of that course, not just the syllabus of teaching topics that are difficult to teach at the minute because students can go in the labs. But a true technique for learning, a virtual technique, for learning that can add value and have other content, other activities built around it.
SJ [00:23:36] Labster can be a lonely place if you do a lot of it, because it's just you and Dr. One, and occasionally Farmer Rodriguez, who is lovely. But you know, it is a tool that a student uses on their own. And I'd really like to see it embedded alongside more social activities within the curriculum so that we're still having that social learning experience that we would have in a traditional classroom, although that's not always possible right now. I think that can be a really powerful way to really implement Labster within a course.
April [00:24:07] What comes to my mind as still something that an educator who is listening might be struggling with is that those black boxes in the Zoom, the students that are still feeling disengaged, despite all of the techniques and tools the science teacher may have brought to bear to try to convey their own passion and interest in the subject matter. What parting kind of advice or guidance would you have for an instructor who’s struggling with disengaged students?
SJ [00:24:41] I think the first thing that comes to mind is that if an educator is actively trying out tools and techniques, many tools and techniques to try and help the students feel more engaged for their studies, then my hat's off to them because that is a super commendable commitment to ensuring or trying to maximize their student's experience of their teaching. And that's hard work. That is really hard work. So well done teachers who are doing this. It's super important.
SJ [00:25:11] When teaching gets difficult. From my own teaching experience, what my students appreciated most was just consistency. So finding one thing that worked well. Finding one thing that stimulated a discussion, that created space and time for true thinking and true exploration, and then coming back together to really talk and then pick a topic no matter what that was, using it consistently throughout the course, I feel is the most important thing.
April [00:25:42] Consistency. Got it. Well, I guess SJ I just want to thank you for this conversation today. I really enjoyed it. And I hope you did, too.
SJ [00:25:52] I did so much. Thank you for inviting me. And as usual, we've sparked off so many ideas for future discussions. That always happens, April. I'm so provoked.
April [00:26:02] It's so much fun for me. And I hope it's fun for and useful for the educators who are listening right now.
April [00:26:08] I suppose that's all for us right now. So until next time, keep learning, keep teaching and stay safe.