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Approaching learning like a video game

By February 25, 2011June 14th, 201627 Comments

Here are two common classroom scenarios: A student is bored while waiting for classmates to finish a test and, therefore, becomes disruptive, or a student is frustrated due to misunderstanding the material, but the class moves forward, anyway. One student wants to speed up past the group and one wants to slow down from the group. In either scenario, the student is left feeling unmotivated. But what would the scenario be if schools were not structured around groups, but rather the individual?

We’re all familiar with basic video game design: A player participates individually, and when a level is complete, moves on to the next level, right?  Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado, has taken a similar approach in how students progress from level to level.

Students are tested and placed in one of 16 performance levels. They then move through the levels at their own pace, not according to a school calendar or their peers. There are still curriculum expectations, but students decide how to learn that content; they could write an essay, prepare a presentation, or work in a group and demonstrate key knowledge and skills.

Is this an approach you would like to see in more schools or in your own school? Do you think individualized curriculum is the master key to student success? Can this approach hold up against the Common Core and state standardized testing?

To learn more about how Adams 50 implements this approach to learning, read our story on the Adams 50 website.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Mindy S. Prosperi says:

    I think this is a wonderful approach. I recently started reading some of the information online by Sir Ken Robinson. He really gives a great argument for totally changing our approach to teaching. Students might actually take to this method of teaching and learn to perform after a bit of practice. Clearly what we are doing now is not working. Sounds like the definition of insanity doesn’t it? I will be reading the two suggested links. Thank you!!

  • Elizabeth Singh says:

    I think this is a very interesting concept. As a teacher, I struggle to meet the wide range of needs of the students in my classroom. It sometimes seems impossible to challenge one set of students, support another set, and go back and reteach yet another group, all at the same time. For math, my school has recently implemented Learning Labs, where students are grouped based on how well they know the key skill. That way, the ones who have mastered the skill can be enriched, and the students who need to slow down can get intervention. This helps to balance things out; I don’t spend a lot of class time reteaching because I know that will be accomplished during Learning Lab time. The Learning Lab groups get changed every two or three weeks as we move on to a new skill, and the students work with different peers and teachers. It seems to work really well. However, we have a responsibility to prepare these students for college and work, and it doesn’t seem to me that most jobs are set up like a video game. Would we be doing the kids a disservice by making them think that “real life” works this way?

  • I agree that this approach of “learning like a video game” is truly an intriguing concept for our students at this point in the 21st Century. I work as a 5th grade teacher in a Title I school where it seems that a child’s motivation is geared by material items such as video games. Daily, I hear remarks from my students about the time they spend on their favorite video games. My question to them is why didn’t they complete their homework? Since the children of our society are extremely motivated with the use of technology,I believe that finding an “academic video game” would probably be beneficial for student academic achievement. Therefore, I am extremely interested in how students can obtain learning standards through a “video game” strategy. I am open to any ideas!

  • Jen Tuzzro says:

    Elizabeth, I agree that the system is not perfect. I think in some ways it does help prepare them for work in terms of self-motivation and self-interest. This “video game system” maybe the the unlikely way to begin education reform that may permeate culture. I wonder if the issue you raise is a matter of refining what it is now. Thanks of for the comment. I also find this a very interesting concept.

  • Annette says:

    I am a little confused. Are you looking at this as a good or bad thing? I mean students should not be bored in class, and teachers should give multiple options so that their students are not bored. But I do not think that school should be like a video game. Students, sadly, have to learn to the test at times but teachers can make it fun so that they are able to pass these tests.

  • Jen Tuzzeo says:

    Annette, currently, I am on the fence about the approach. The article we we wrote in Changing Schools (see the link above) goes more deeply into the process. Students are tested in order to move to the next level, and they are also guided in their curriculum. I simply find it interesting to have this kind of open dialogue about a different approach to student learning.

  • Karla says:

    I find the video game approach intriguing and a viable option to learning. I teach in an alternative school where instruction is truly individualized and we have used the analogy to think of accomplishing one’s academic goals as beating levels in a video game. However, in a traditional classroom this is a bit trickier as the content is not individualized but the student approach is. I have experienced students who were so goal oriented that they would practically tell me to sit down and let them be responsible for their own learning and they would take over and do an excellent job. And then there is the unmotivated group. Of course, this group is why we want to implement the video game idea to inspire them to become independent learners. This kind of learning, in my opinion, to be successful, will take time as the teacher acts as facilitator to support student choices as to how they are going to learn. As students take ownership of their own learning, they will feel empowered as they accomplish their goals.

  • M DaGrava says:

    “Learning like a video game” seems to be a great slogan since students are engrossed with video games. My main concern is if the approach is realistic. I am not trying to be negative just cautious. I understand that we need to keep students stimulated and a video game approach may just be the way to accomplish this. However, I feel that this approach may work best in a high school setting where the classes can be more easily separated into skill level, where as, in the elementary setting this approach may prove to be more difficult. I do like the idea of individualizing curriculum according to the student’s skill level of each concept, but what about cooperative learning and collaboration between students, would this be lost? The video gaming approach is definitely an aspect that I would like to learn more about and evaluate the research of the approach. I am willing to keep an open, yet cautious mind to this approach!

  • Shameeka Browne says:

    I think the idea of having students move along at their own pace is great. However, my concern lies in the management of the whole process. Are the students progressing from concept to concept (addition to subtraction), or are they progressing within in the same concept (adding single digits to double digits)? I am also curious of the teachers role if there are 20+ kids working on different levels? Are the students grouped by ability level? Is this an ongoing practice for introducing new content, or is it for review? I think this is a great concept for pre-assessing students’ academic levels. The data from the assessment could be used to shape the teacher’s approach for teaching new content. I have to do more research before I can make a decision about “approaching learning like a video game.”

  • Bree Sweat says:

    I love the idea of allowing students to move at their own pace. I really think is benefits the child and causes less stress for them as well. However, the first problem that pops into my head is this: how will the material be taught? Will you just have a teacher for each concept? Therefore, they will only teach that particular concept and then move on to another teacher. This could work and it would allow the students to learn different approaches to the material and view different learning styles. I cannot think of any other way to actually teach the material. If you had maybe 4 teachers that taught 4 different concepts each, it may work. Is there enough time in the day to do this because I am almost certain that one or 4 concepts is not the only thing that teacher would be teaching every day. Like I said before, the concept sounds great and I would love to use it at my school. It gives the students more freedom and I believe they would enjoy school more by doing this every day. However, I do not know if it could work at my school because we do not have enough teachers, materials, or time in the day to conduct school like this. I also believe it would benefit the scores on standardized testing as long as all of the student complete the 16 concepts. If they do not, I think they will fall behind. Another questions then arises; what do the students who finish the 16 concepts early do once they are done? Do they move on to the next set of concepts or review for the rest of the school year. Overall, I like the concept, but I just do not believe it would work in all schools.

  • Jen Tuzzeo says:

    M. DaGrava, Cooperative learning and collaboration are actually fostered in Adams 50’s approach. Because several levels are in one classroom, they help each other. The article in Changing Schools describes a scenario I witnessed in the classroom of how the class is learning the same content in a differentiated way.
    Shameeka and Bree, I agree there are many kinks to be ironed out. Adams 50 has had to be very creative infinding solutions to some of the issues you both raise. There website also gives more detail. As far as graduating early, I know that Adams 50 has only implemented this approach through 9th grade and therefore have not decided on graduation issues yet.

  • Karla Carmichael says:

    I think this is an interesting approach to meeting the needs of the students. Starting students where they are and allowing them to work at a pace that works for them sounds like a great idea. Most concepts in school are building blocks. You need to have a strong foundation before you build anything stable on that. Some students miss out of having the strong foundation because they did not understand the concept in the beginning grades and more and more information continued to be built on a foundation that was shaky at best. As a teacher I have encountered many students that were missing that foundation. It is difficult for the teacher and the student to try to fill in the missing parts while at the same time adding more information. I agree that I have questions about how this type of individualized learning would be implemented in a school. I believe it would take a lot of training for teachers, administration and parents for this to be successful. However it is obvious that the way school is now does not always meet the needs of all students.

  • Justine Saunders says:

    Approaching learning like a video game is an analogy that makes very real sense especially in today’s classrooms. Every teacher experiences this issue in their careers, some even every day. I think this is a great idea to individualize the pace at which students move to the curriculum. The only concern I have is how difficult it would be to manage the entire process. It would be very beneficial to every type of learner in the classroom, which is the goal of every educator.

  • Chaney says:

    I think it is a great approach. That way one student is not getting bored while “waiting” on their classmate. Therefore, causing less behavior problems in the class.

  • Lindsay Sullivan says:

    Sounds like a fantastic way to keep ALL learners motivated. It would help to blur the lines of where students “should be” performing and learners could take the curriculum at their own pace. It does sound like a logistical nightmare for the schools and how to teachers fare with the “revolving door” of students moving at their own pace. I would like to learn more about this method and see the data of if it impacts student learning positively or negatively. Thanks for your post!

  • Jodi Hanford says:

    Student led learning has been proven to allow students to have long lasting learning affects. Meaning that because the students are choosing what they want to learn, or how they want to learn it, they are more connected to the learning which makes a long lasting impression. There is a school in Italy that is student led and the success rate is high. I know that I do not want to learn about something that I am not interested in.

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  • Jen Tuzzeo says:

    Here is another blog written by a neurologist:
    Judy Willis makes the case that our brains are hard wired by dopamine motivation and it is a video game model that represents levels of accomplishments. She also applies this theory to learning in the classroom. An interesting read, for sure.

  • Elisa says:

    I, too, love the idea. But like some have said, I struggle with the reality of managing 30 middle school students in a class on so many different levels. The “up-front work” is where I would need guidance- If I could figure out the management system ahead such as pre-testing that really is helpful in showing mastery of standards then when the kids show up I can go with the video game idea and I think the kids would buy into also.

  • J. Foster says:

    Like many previous posts, I, too, can see the advantages and disadvantages of a video game approach to teaching. In order for any child to learn new information, they must recall previous learning and make those links along the brain’s neurons in order to internalize the new learning. This video game approach to teaching would do that. However, the management would be an issue of reality in the classroom. I also believe the motivation as discussed earlier would be beneficial to student learning and management of the environment by the teacher. I’m assuming small group explicit instruction would be a management technique that could be successful in this type of classroom as it would provide that explicit instruction to a small group of students on or near the same level of understanding. I feel like I need to research more on the video game instruction classroom management.

  • I see how this could work, but it would be tricky to implement at first. The teacher would have to have an awesome classroom management style. It can be a bit overwhelming to have a fluid classroom, especially making sure that each student is hitting the expected learning outcomes for the entire group. Very interesting idea!

  • Melissa G says:

    This hearkens to Maria Montessori and a student-controlled learning environment, which I think is a fabulous idea. Having students take onus of their learning opens hundreds of avenues for them, namely to explore material outside the realm of state-dictated curriculum. How often have our students come to us actually wanting more information or showing hints of interest in the topic beyond what we cover in class only to be accidentally forgotten or asked to wait while we assist our lower students? And, yes, classroom management would have to be key, but this process could also aide with classroom management – no more students trying to take naps, carry on conversations with neighbors or rattling through backpacks because they finished earlier than their classmates!

  • Gleacia says:

    I began to research this topic a few years ago as possible research for my dissertation. I was amazed at the take on the “Gamers Generation,” as they are often called. It is essential that we remember we can no longer entice a child with a traditional blackboard and a stern look! Kids are growing up differently today than we did years ago, and their brains are wired differently as a result of the “in your face” technology available. This is an interesting take on how we can use the information we have about child development today to address their specific learning needs! It is something my teachers and I have considered and embraced on a smaller scale last school year. We began with an ELA model. I am hoping to incorporate this paradigm with our math classes this year!

  • Faith Stewart says:

    I think introducing instruction through a video game can have it’s advantages and disadvantages. Learning through a video game will encourage motivation for learning. However, students need to still be exposed to the traditional way of learning, so that they don’t rely on instruction always being a game, but that they are exposed to instruction being delivered in many different forms. While a video game may fit one person’s learning style, paper and pencil may fit another learning style.

  • Liz Bradley says:

    Definitely! The biggest problem I have in English is the difference in pace! Some students have read the whole novel and don’t want to stay on Chapter 3 when they could already be discussing themes or doing more advanced work that others might never get to! Great opportunity for extension activities which frees up time for one-to-one time with those with difficulties.

  • I really like your concept of comparing the school students with the game characters. The one who wins moves to the next level.

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