Let them play games!

Games-based learning is all the rage in academia/libraryland right now.  There’s a part of me that wants to have a curmudgeon explosion about it.  “Back in my day, when I was only a wee sixth grader, I sat in a cubicle at the public library for six hours straight reading books about Queen Hatshepsut and writing notes on notecards with my bare hands!  And then!  Then!  I walked home uphill both ways, where I proceeded to render a bust of Hatshepsut out of play dough.”

But last Thursday, I caved:

The Game is Born

Earlier in the week when I sat down to plan the instruction session for this English 101 class, I had one of those terrible snowballing revelations about how tricky the class was going to be.

“Blerg, this assignment doesn’t actually have a research component.”

“…Hmm, didn’t these classes have a major ‘tude when they came in for the intro session at the beginning of the semester?”

“They won’t have topics picked yet, the instructor just wants me to help them find background information about the texts…”

I had to do something to light a fire under these classes.  And then I read a Tweet from @ProjectSAILS about an online game created by librarians at UW Oshkosh.  A trivia game to teach and assess information literacy skills?  Yes!  All of the things!

I had been thinking about some kind of setup where groups rotated through stations and looked at print/digital encyclopedias to find background information about the historical events in the texts, the author and director, and the texts themselves.  After a little self-directed active learning, maybe groups could “teach” the rest of the class one thing they learned?  I could just hear the crickets when I tried to get groups to come up and do demos…but trivia!?  This could be something!

The Game is Played

I ended up keeping the rotating station idea, but I added a board game component.  Here’s what the students did.

When students came in, they sat at one of five tables, thus naturally arranging themselves into five groups.  Bwahaha!  My plan was coming together.

Each table contained: a “board game” that walked through the steps of using a resource, two or three Chromebooks, and a few books that they would need.

When the session started (after the zombie-like students turned in papers that they had presumably worked on all night), I explained that we were going to play a giant board game to learn about different kinds of resources they could use to find background information about the texts for their next paper.  I explained that the game would have two parts: first, each team would rotate through five stations, where the game pieces on the table would walk them through how to use a resource.  Next, we would play trivia, which would include questions about the information they found and the research methods they used.  I gave each team a sheet for notes and we started the first part of the game.  The groups rotated through these game stations:

  • Background on Vietnam War – They used a print encyclopedia about the Vietnam War and Credo Reference to find digital encyclopedias.
  • Background on the Belgian Congo – They used a print encyclopedia about African History and Credo Reference to find digital encyclopedias.
  • WorldCat Local Catalog and LC Classification – I pulled several books about the two historical events, had students look up the titles in the catalog, identify LC Subject Headings, and then look at the call number to figure out the book’s “big subject” in LC Classification.
  • Background on Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola – Students used a film encyclopedia for Coppola, Literature Resource Center for a bio of Conrad, and also looked up Coppola on Wikipedia and identified parts of the entry that might be useful for research.
  • Academic Search Premier and MLA International Bibliography – Students practiced searching for articles related to the book and movie.

The first part of the game felt a little more like “work” than I would have liked, but when I looked at the students’ note sheets I could tell they had indeed worked their way through the game pieces and gotten a lot out of actually having to use the sources.  The second part, the trivia, was actually…fun!  The groups got competitive about answering the questions, although they were much more sure of themselves when answering questions about “facts” they found as opposed to the research methods they used to find them.  After groups answered questions, I found that I could sometimes add to their answer in order to extend how they were thinking about the resource they used or the research method they used.  I hadn’t actually planned on doing this, but it felt natural so I went with it.

The last question of the game (worth double bonus points!) asked for a team to come up and demonstrate a search they had done in Academic Search Premier.  In both classes, students were a little reluctant to come up, but eventually a team decided they wanted the points enough to brave the database in front of the whole class.

The Gamemaker Reflects

This was the kind of session that I felt could go one way or the other: Absolute Flop or Library Instruction Triumph. In reality, it was somewhere in between (although it leaned in the Triumph direction!).  Here’s what I think/learned/want to do in future:

  • Students were a little wary at first.  Especially in the first class, students just had this look on their faces like: What is this crazy library lady gonna do to us now?  I can actually relate to that.  It’s a little unsettling to come to “Library Day” (I wish that term would die a thousand deaths) and sit down at a table with a giant, colorful board game on it.
  • Most students eventually “got into it.”  One student asked me why they didn’t have giant game pieces to move along the board as they went.  When we played the trivia part, students were loud, engaged, and even got a little angry when another team beat them out answering a question.
  • Student engagement is high-stakes in this type of environment.  In a “normal” library instruction session if there are a couple students refusing to engage it’s not a huge deal.  It’s annoying, distressing, and can sometimes disrupt the mojo of the entire class, but for the most part it won’t destroy the experience for everyone.  For this game, though, I knew I needed students to be into it.  A couple groups had a student who was bent on complaining: “Are we getting a grade for this?  I can’t read this upside down.”  Those students made it a lot harder for their groups to be successful.
  • It’s great when you have excellent classroom technology and space!  This year we got supplies for a “mobile classroom”: a projector and screen, along with 40 Chromebooks.  These supplies have made so much difference in how I do instruction!  Sometimes I set up the space in “coffeeshop chill vibe” mode, with lots of big comfy(ish) chairs and little tables.  For this class, the five tables worked perfectly.
  • Assessment!  The trivia game itself was an assessment, but I didn’t actually get any hard data from it.  If I do this type of game again, I want to think of a way to generate data (but without being clunky and interrupting the flow of the game).  I also collected the note sheets for each group.  I can definitely use those to assess what types of information and skills students found important, but since they’re for entire groups (and usually the designated note taker is highly motivated), it won’t necessarily be a reflection of the class as a whole.
  • Overall, success.  I think this activity surprised students, helped them learn skills to locate and use a variety of print and online library resources for background research, and positioned the library as a friendly, fun, welcoming place.