Saturday / April 13

Digital Gaming and Simulations: Real World Relevance and Classroom Applications

Do you remember back in school when you were learning something and wondered why you were learning it? When would you ever use ancient world history, or exponential equations, or that dreaded algebra? When I was a freshman in high school, a student asked my teacher how they would use imaginary numbers in the real world. Sadly, my teacher didn’t know the answer off the top of her head. She had to ask the math chair for the answer. The next day, she informed the student with the good question that it was used in electrical engineering.

Do you think this student from my academic heyday was interested in imaginary numbers afterwards? Do you feel the teacher made a positive impression on the relevance of this topic?

Every concept must be immediately relevant to students. They must see that one day, when the situation calls for it, they will use what they are learning in the classroom in their future experiences. The classroom must prepare students for the real world.

How can teachers bring this type of real world learning into the classroom? Learning through scenarios, simulations, and practical applications – situated learning experiences are the key to establishing relevance for students. How can teachers implement this intense focus on embedding curriculum into real world situations?

One of the teaching approaches teachers can embrace is using digital games and simulations during instruction. Games and simulations are rich in scenarios and have an amazing ability to embed information into their storylines or gameplay. With so many digital games and simulations available across numerous platforms such as web browsers, tablets, computers, and handheld devices, teachers have a wide crop of games to choose from.

Here are five strategies for teachers to embrace digital games and simulations for deep and powerful learning.

 Set Up a Scenario

This should be a fun and creative scenario to establish interest, relevance, and a connection to the concepts students are learning. For example, if a teacher is instructing their students on dividing numbers, then use a scenario such as cutting up apples for a pie or slicing pizza pies. Here is a game that students can play that aligns with the apple-cutting scenario mentioned above. Click here to visit

Although some storylines may be silly, bizarre, and complete fantasy, many of the embedded scenarios student gamers will find themselves in will be engaging and mentally transferrable to the real world. In other words, if an alien is measuring something using the metric system, the students will focus on the concept and mentally suspend the storyline for a brief moment. By doing so, the student will experience the information or accomplish the challenges set forth by the embedded assessment tactics of the game. The student gamers resume their gameplay unaware of the deep learning and assessment occurring during their fun— engaging in the digital game-based learning experience.

Use Questioning and Subject Discussions to Connect Gameplay to Lesson Content

The connection between in-class instruction and the gaming and simulation experience will be clumsy and an uneasy transition without the help of questioning and classroom discussions. These questions and discussions can occur naturally before, during, and after the gaming and simulation experience. For example, the teacher is asking questions such as, “Why must the apples be divided up equally? Why does the number start large and end up small in the quotient? What does each number represent in the problem in relations to dividing up apples? What other situations can you think of where division would be needed?” Teachers must remember to vary the questions they ask according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Use Strategic Classroom Observation to Differentiate Instruction

The digital game or simulation is not a teacher; it isn’t even a person. However, it will keep students engaged during the learning and practice portion of a lesson. Teachers must use this valuable time to observe student performance and use the gaming and simulation time to reteach students that may be experiencing difficulty with the concept. This also promotes the opportunity to differentiate instruction for students that are gifted or having learning challenges. Another potential strategy is to form a buddy system. Pair students that are academically strong in the lesson to a struggling learner. This form of peer coaching will help the struggling learners by providing a learning buddy to assist them with questions.

School/ Home Connections

If you are tired of the ‘death by worksheet’ mentality when assigning homework or recommending extra practice to parents for their children, send the name of a digital game home that matches the concepts they are presently learning at school with directions explaining how to access it. *It is important to be cognizant of the students’ access to digital devices at home. Teachers must try to select games accessible to all devices.*

The ‘Center’ 

Many classrooms have an area devoted to center activities — either a place students go when they are finished with their work or a station they visit during a subject activity block such as Language Arts (stations may include: Reading group, writing center, listening center, etc.). Most classrooms now have a desktop computer connected to the internet. Teachers can easily find and curate digital games and simulations for students to use independently during centers time. They must simply teach students how to access the list of digital games they will use at this learning station.

These strategies will help teachers (and parents for that matter) leverage the engagement and motivation students have for playing digital games in the context of learning with digital gaming. The only real potential implementation mistake teachers or parents may face is pretending digital games will teach their child or student. As wonderful as games and simulations are, they are not teachers and never should be treated as such. Teachers and parents must use digital games and simulations in the proper manner — as valuable learning tools. 

Written by

Ryan Schaaf is the Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and a faculty associate for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Graduate Program, with over 15 years in the education field. He is the co-author of Making School a Game Worth Playing.

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