How We Learn
All learning tasks are not created equal. The learning tasks we give up on are the ones that let us down with regard to learning. They do a bad job of structuring our learning experience, leaving us bored or frustrated. To be effective, game environments must be structured around how we learn.
Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence has amassed a set of basic principles that describe the learning process . Following are four of these key principles, with examples of how each plays out in traditional training and in game-based learning.
Principle 1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. Obviously, learners who have accurate prior knowledge of a given subject matter tend to have a leg up. But what about a learner whose prior knowledge is wrong? As an example, consider an experienced worker who is practicing loading dock safety procedures. He may “know” that he’s supposed to look behind him when backing up in a forklift—but if he’s worked on mostly quiet loading docks in the past, he may have developed the bad habit of merely listening for potential rear obstacles. In a traditional lecture-based setting, his buried misconception might surface only at test time, if at all—rendering unreliable his related “learning” up to that point. With game-based learning tools, misconceptions about core learning goals are quickly apparent. For example, in-game, his failure to look behind him before backing up would result in an immediate, negative consequence (e.g., crashing a forklift, hurting his virtual self or striking a pedestrian). As a result, he could rapidly self-correct and move on to more advanced learning based on a sound foundation.
Principle 2: Students’ motivation determines, directs and sustains what they do to learn. The digital generation that makes up a large part of today’s workforce is notoriously unmoved by traditional, lecture and tutorial-based training approaches. On the other hand, they are very comfortable with videolearning tasks and game-based learning. According to game-based learning experts, learners tend to be highly motivated by in-game feedback such as scores and evaluations. For example, many learners using the loading dock safety game play again and again until they achieve a perfect safety score. In the process (and sometimes without consciously realizing it), they learn how to operate within the game environment; actively think, experiment and learn how to safely accomplish their work; and practice their “lessons learned” to develop consistent and productive thought processes.
Principle 3: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. Learning is a process that happens in bite-sized chunks, each learner working at a different pace. Thoughtfully designed, passive training programs follow this process, but primarily do so on a group basis. This means that slower students often struggle, and faster students become bored. The focus tends to necessarily be on learning facts or rules, with limited opportunities to apply them. In contrast, good game-based learning is tailored to each learner. For example, in the loading dock game, a learner begins with basic concepts such as putting on protective gear. She cannot advance in the game until she performs this step correctly. As she chooses actions that demonstrate her mastery of interim learning goals, she moves on to more advanced challenges. Even more important, because the game represents an active, realistic learning environment, the focus is on learning, through consequences, to apply the right knowledge at the right time.
Principle 4: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. As discussed, traditional training cannot provide a constant, individualized and highly motivating level of feedback. In addition, traditional classroom and tutorial-type training methods do not give learners the opportunity to repeatedly practice thought processes and skills in a realistic environment. An effective game for loading dock workers establishes motivational goals relevant to actual loading dock work. As learners progress, when they make a mistake, they experience immediate in-game consequences (e.g., failure to put on a hard hat results in a falling beam to the head). Additional feedback, which comes through alerts, scores, and post-game reports, motivates learners to continue practicing until they master the game’s learning goals—and provides the information they need to get there.