How To Help Your Students Embrace Failure Through Game-Based Learning

student-embrace-failure-game-based-learningHow To Help Your Students Embrace Failure Through Game-Based Learning

By Justin W. Marquis, Ph.D.

Whether our students fear the dark, monsters, heights, some other imagined horror, or something more real such as family troubles or bullying, everyone is afraid of something. For students in our schools those fears probably include something that is an inherent part of our society and our educational system – failure.

In our society the fear of failure pervades everything we do in our work, our relationships, and in education. For some students this fear is a debilitating impediment to academic success (Ramirez, 26 Aug. 2013). Despite the societal taboo against failure, there is one place where it is expected and embraced – games. In particular, video games are built on the premise that progress happens through a process of experimentation, failure, and adaptation.

The movement to incorporate games and game-based learning in our schools is gaining momentum, but another fear prevents educators from fully realizing the full potential of game-based learning. The fear of the unknown is inhibiting some educators from fully embracing video games as the powerful, failure-based learning experiences that they are.

One way of overcoming these fears, and thus helping students to learn from their failures, is to develop an understanding for how to actually use games in the classroom, and how to take advantage of the failure process that they rely on.

3 Strategies To Make Game-Based Learning Explicit

Turning game play into a lesson about the value of failure is easy since students already implicitly understand that games function by this process and success depends on the ability to learn from their mistakes. The trick is making that knowledge explicit and generalizing it beyond game play.

There are several strategies that can be put in place by educators to help ensure that this happens.

1. Encourage Cooperative Play

One of the knocks on video games as learning experiences is that they can isolate students from the valuable social components that make play a superb vehicle for learning. Simply allowing students to play individually, in silence, deprives them of the most important components necessary for learning from failure – interaction and reflection. Learning from the failure inherent in game play requires an active strategy of verbalizing what has gone wrong, discussing strategies with others, trying new approaches, and discussing how the strategy and the process can be generalized to other contexts.

If there is one strategy that should be taken from this post it is, “Do Not Allow Students to Play Alone!” This should be an unalterable truth for every parent or teacher looking to help his or her students learn through play. In the home, this may require parents to play along with their children or to encourage cooperative play among siblings.

In the classroom, this is easily achieved by requiring that students play in teams with clear ground rules for the allocation of play opportunities. These rules will vary from game to game, but the strategies outlined below help students understand what they are learning and how it can be applied outside of the game.

leos-eyepaint2. Implement Structures for Active Engagement

Students may not naturally be inclined or intellectually capable of discussing their strategizing during game play. If you sit two students together in front of a computer and expect them to engage in an active discussion of what they are learning in the game you will probably be disappointed. Putting structures in place that help students communicate about their play will ensure that the learning is happening and being actively incorporated into their mental schema.

Providing a template for supporting the process will help give them a structure for starting the conversation and will establish the expectation that the discussion will happen. Consider posting a game play process diagram near the station where play will be happening and require that students report, either in writing of verbally, on the decision points they have encountered; what choices they made; why they made the choice they did; what the result was; and what they could do differently if they were not successful.

In addition to discussing the process that they are undertaking, students should be encouraged to reflect on specific failures and solutions, broader strategies for success, and patterns that they are seeing among the various games they are playing and other situations they have or may encounter.

This process can happen within the context of playing the game but will be more effective with some time between play and reflection. Convene a group discussion about the game play, common failures, and strategies that worked. Intentionally broaden the conversation by asking students if and how the situation they encountered in the game tells them anything about other situations that they have encountered in their education or life.

3. Embrace Failure as a Learning Opportunity

Once conversation has been successfully guided towards discussing how game play strategies can be applied in other situations, ask students about the difference between failing and trying again in the games and in other situations they have mentioned, or in school.

Students are likely to resist the linking of schoolwork and failure initially, but this provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the ways in which failure, even in school, provides the same sort of opportunity to reassess and learn from mistakes. The trick to making this understanding a reality is to implement a culture shift in the classroom in which failure is an option, and does not discourage or overly penalize students for their need to make repeated efforts.

In order for failure in the classroom to be a learning opportunity rather than an actual failure, the teacher will need to invite multiple efforts and revisions of classroom assignments and projects. Students cannot learn from their failures if they fail an assignment or class and become discouraged. Operating from the basic premise that every child can reach a reasonable level of proficiency with any lesson is the place to begin. Following that belief with an acceptance of students’ need to learn at their own pace through multiple attempts is the next step.

In the end, our current schools structures that rely on grades and lock-step advancement through material in a specific amount of time do not lend themselves well to learning from classroom failures. As the teacher, you need to take steps to set up some areas of the curriculum in which a process that includes failure is possible. Once you try it, you might find that your students lose their overriding fear of failure and, in fact, become much better learners because of it.

21-smart-games-for-game-based-learningFinding Educationally Relevant Games

A majority of educators are not trained in game-based learning pedagogy and thus lack some of the prerequisite skills for finding educationally relevant games, determining how they align to curricular objectives, and incorporating them into the classroom. Unfortunately there is no magic solution for looking at a game’s description or specifications and determining that it does or does not meet your needs. Determining this takes some legwork and time on the part of educators.

There are several repositories for educational games on the Internet such as PBS Kids, Learning Games for Kids, Funbrain, Knowledge Adventure, Learning Works for Kids, and the company I work for, KNeoWorld. At a vast majority of these sites the work of determining what grade level a game is appropriate for and which educational objectives a game meets will largely be up to teachers to determine for themselves.

(Alternatively, here are 21 Smart Games For Game-Based Learning from TeachThought.)

At KNeoWorld we are working to take the guesswork out of finding games that are both engaging and educationally relevant. All of our games are reviewed by a panel of experts and carefully mapped to the Common Core Standards, so choosing a game is as simple as searching for the objectives you are targeting and navigating to the specified titles.

In addition, we are developing curricula for each game that explain basic play and how to guide students in learning the things that are most important while they play. Regardless of the degree to which any individual game meets Common Core standards, they all function well as vehicles for introducing and embracing failure as a learning experience in the classroom.

For more about the benefits of embracing failure as a learning tool check out this post at

How To Help Your Students Embrace Failure Through Game-Based Learning; You can reach Justin at [email protected]; image attribution flickr user umf