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The Video Game Model for Success in STEM

by Darlyne de Haan |

In education, we discuss at length growth mindset vs fixed mindset and how we want students to have a growth mindset, especially in math and science. We as educators often hear students say that they don’t have a “math brain” or a “science brain” and watch them give up once they begin to struggle.

We learn from the brain that stress (note that boredom and lack of understanding are also stresses) causes the brain’s alert system (the amygdala) to go into high alert and shut down all communication with the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex); the brain goes directly to the involuntary actions of flight, fright, or freeze (FFF). When in this state of FFF, very little learning occurs, and the student really cannot control themselves because the involuntary brain is in charge.

So why do gamers (people who play video games) who experience over 80% of repeated failures, setbacks, and increasingly challenging work continue to persevere? Why do they not create a negative fixed mindset of failure? It has to do with motivation.

Motivation from positive experiences is necessary to overcome the brain’s resistance to applying effort when there is a low expectation of reward or success. So imagine how positive experiences can impact an English learners (ELs) or multilingual language learners (MLLs) to be successful in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) discipline while learning English. Positive experiences release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives the sensation of pleasure. It is the “feel good” neurotransmitter, and video games are designed to release dopamine by always including four factors. These same four factors, if included in our lesson design, can aid our ELs/MLLs in finding success in STEM content areas. The four factors are:

Gamer playing a video game

  1. Goal clarity
  2. Achievable challenges
  3. Predictions
  4. Feedback

Here is a breakdown of each of the four factors:

1. Goal Clarity

Video games always have a goal: Save the world from zombies, for example. The students know what they must accomplish, what is the expectation. When working with ELs/MLLs, start the lesson by selecting the smallest amount of material that will have the maximum meaning for the learner. Know the prerequisite skills required for the task and help the students gain this knowledge by using visuals like videos or pictures, and use the students’ funds of knowledge to help them understand and get the maximum understanding of what is the goal of the lesson—what it is they must accomplish.

2. Achievable Challenges

Finding a students’ achievable challenge is the same as setting levels for the students to work at. You can determine the students’ level of achievable challenge by considering what is achievable for them based on their “funds of knowledge” and level of language ability. Differentiate the instruction and requirements. Consider starting the lesson where most students have similar levels of knowledge or create “intentional” groups where everyone can contribute. See my blog here where I explain the “intentional” groups that I call “two pairs in a quad.”

3. Predictions

A big part of video games is that students are always having to make a prediction or guess what should be the next move. In the classroom, this can occur by making sure that the practice occurs first in your presence over a short period of time while the student is focused on the learning. For example, if the student is working on a STEM task where they have to decide what material to use in building a house that stays cool, have the student(s) predict which material they think will be the best. In your presence, have the student follow the process you modeled to see the outcome. Explain that they have to do the same to the other materials to determine if their prediction was correct or incorrect. Use sentence frames to help students formulate sentences to help them describe their prediction and/or write their results.

4. Feedback

This will lead into the final factor, which is feedback. The other reason video games are so successful is because the students receive immediate feedback. With video games, they don’t have to wait to find out if their prediction was correct or not. They will either lose energy or a life, or the game will give them a loud sound letting them know if they were correct or incorrect. In the classroom, we need to provide the same kind of immediate feedback. Using our STEM task of the house as an example, you would need to watch the student practice the procedure on their selected material and provide the student with prompt and specific feedback on what variable needs to be altered to correct or enhance the outcome.

The benefits of the video game model are students’ successes and their improved confidence and attitudes. The immediate feedback on their predictions releases dopamine, which makes them happy and makes them want to continue to try in order to get the good feeling that dopamine provides. Just think about yourself; the video game model is everywhere in your life, as well, in the form of rewards—credit card rewards, hotel chain rewards, airline rewards. All of these rewards of points earned, perks of free rooms or flights or other amenities, these are all a part of the video game model. So, if you can use this model with your ELs/MLLs while modifying it to the students’ level of language acquisition, imagine the confidence and success they will experience in the STEM classroom!

Have you used the video game model in your instruction? Share about your experiences, tips, and successes in the comments below.

About the author

Darlyne de Haan

Dr. Darlyne de Haan, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, is a recipient and participant of the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population and is fluent in English and advanced in Spanish.

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