November 30, 2015




Difficulty Curves & Scaffolding

Games employ subtle, often entertaining systems to teach players the necessary skills and to challenge them to master those skills.  Zelda games, for example, start off with back story narrative, in which the player learns how to ride their horse, finds their sword and slingshot, and learns how to move, fight, and manage their health.  These tutorials scaffold new skills to aid player development. In the first session, we will use these game tutorials as a model to reflect on the mechanics of university courses. Participants will discuss how to structure their courses to aid their students in acquiring general skills to be a good student and the skills particular to the course curriculum.

Difficulty curves are a measure of how quickly the difficulty of a task increases. If a task is trivially easy, students will find it boring.  Repeated trivial tasks will be demotivational.  If a task is too hard, students will find it frustrating and again demotivating.  Game designers apply this theory through an optimized difficulty curve seeking to gradually increase the range of difficulty while allowing for some fluctuation in difficulty of particular tasks.  We find this same concept in the psychological theory of flow. If someone is properly challenged, they can enter a flow state in which their concentration and feeling of intrinsic motivation increase. In our workshop we will discuss how single assignments and entire courses can be designed with difficulty curves to increase student motivation and potentially trigger flow states as students learn.

Team Learning

In basketball, championships and especially repeated/dynastic success only come to those teams that are well-built and well-coached. For example, Michael Jordan is widely considered the best basketball player to have ever played. And yet he played at a statistically elite level for six years in the NBA before winning his first title. It was not until his teammate Scottie Pippen developed into a superstar and his coach Phil Jackson got into his second year that the Bulls became one of, if not the most dominant team in NBA history.

Team games emphasize collaboration to complete tasks too large for a single individual. Successful teams are consciously constructed and actively developed with attention given to roles and complimentary skill sets.  Great coaches create frameworks that both maximize the current abilities of their players and develop those players by improving their existing skills and adding complimentary skills.

In higher education, we often use discussion groups, study groups, or research groups.  However, these groups are often constructed through student choice, random number assignment, or other equally unplanned methods.  In applying the lessons from team games, we should think about social, cultural, and intellectual factors when we create groups.  We should provide guidance in the types of roles and duties that team members might take on, and we should ensure that these roles and duties are shared equitably and without reaffirming potentially negative social constructs.

In the day-to-day management of the class, students can be required to do homework to prepare for class so that class time can be used for discussions, activities, and projects.  For accountability, assessments can be used to measure both the individual students’ preparation and the collective groups mastery of the lessons. By shifting from a lecture format, to a more active format, faculty members can focus on facilitating student growth on both the individual and group levels.

Overcoming Failure

Games assume that the player in a novice and present increasingly difficult challenges to assess the gamer’s skill level.  If a gamer is already familiar with the game mechanics, they will advance rapidly to the point where they are challenged.  If they are new to the game mechanics, they can learn in the low stakes introductory levels, slowly mastering the new skills before being challenged by the big obstacles later in the game.  One of the most powerful elements of games and what makes them so replayable is that they create this safe place to fail.  Whether you’re playing a multi-player game like chess or a single player game like the first Mario, you are expected to lose often. By creating a scenario in which you can lose, the game challenges you to learn from your mistakes and to improve controller skills and timing in a game like Mario, or understanding of the concepts, tactics, and strategy of a game like chess.  Well designed games use failure to make you want to not only play them but to master them.

In educational settings, failure is most often seen as final and irreparable. An F is the unhappy opposite of an A, and it can cause anxiety and fear. However, by incorporating failure into instruction and using it to challenge students to master the skills and content of the course, we can reduce stress for students. We’ve already discussed how scaffolding and difficulty curves can be used to ease students into a course. Rather than basing a the grade mix for a class around exams, where failing is final and significantly punitive for the total grade, using quizzes and self-checks that are lower stakes can help students and instructors identify and overcome weaknesses.  The gaming concepts of immediate feedback and multiple tries can transform frustrating obstacles into challenges to be iteratively attempted and surmounted.

In the classroom, we often assume that students enter a course with both learning skills and some fundamental knowledge of the course content already established.  To extend the metaphor of the game, we might assume that a player has held a controller before and understand the basics of how their gaming system works.  However, they have likely not played our game – taken our course.  We should thus use low-risk assessments early in the course, challenging the student to recognize their current skill set, and then allowing them to overcome difficulty that we have built into the course.  Through constant feedback and by structuring our assessments to allow for low-risk failure, we can help the students learn new skills and new content in a lower anxiety format.

Game-Based Learning

Every game teaches its players skills and content. Beyond learning game mechanics, the story, art, and meta-narrative are full of relevant lessons that applies to its players lives. Minecraft teaches resource management, Portal expands understandings of physics, World of Warcraft requires learning teamwork and interdependency. As players overcome the obstacles in games, they master both skills and game content. Games thus present an opportunity to engage students.

Game-based learning is the practice of using games as a learning tool. The interactivity of games, especially video games, can be used to teach virtually anything—from digital literacies to social skills, art & design to resource management & economics, strategy & teamwork to computer programming. Often, learning objects are used in conjunction with games to provide structure and direction for intended learning.

Some educators are using popular games such as Minecraft to teach geography & programming or Portal to teach physics & language arts. There are also a wide variety of purpose-built educational games to supplement standard courses. Some academics are also using games to collaborate with gamers and further scientific discovery.


The language learning app Duolingo uses game principles to motivate you to learn a language – it started with Spanish and now offer French, German, Russian, Turkish and ten others. The app gives you sets of vocabulary to learn and then provides a variety of well designed assessments to test your knowledge on that vocabulary.  As you complete these challenges, you earn experience points and levels, and unlock new challenges (vocabulary sets). You can compete against friends to see who has earned higher levels for an individual language or overall. Meanwhile, behind the scenes the app is using your participation to translate the world wide web word by word into the various languages it offers.  This free app teaches you a language and translates the internet, using game mechanics for motivation.

Gamification is the practice of applying game design principles to non-gaming activities.  Points, achievements, and badges can be used as extrinsic motivation to reward and archive activity in a broad array of fields.  Car companies have gamified efficient driving by providing positive visual reinforcement for fuel efficient driving.  The programming communal tool GitHub has gamified coding by developing a color coded visual representation of user activity.  A quick glance shows how often and how active any user has been for the last six months and encourages users to stay active.  From Boy Scout badges to gold stars in the kindergarten classroom, gamification has long been used in childhood education but is now being consciously and critically applied to university education.

There are many elements of gamification that can be applied individually or in combination to college courses.  Grading systems can be reframed from a model in which students start with and try to maintain an A, to one in which students start with 0 points and complete activities to earn points towards their final grade.  Faculty can employ badges to recognize students for rising to the challenge and succeeding or even just completing more than the minimum.  Difficulty curves, scaffolding, tutorials, and even syllabi (the rule set for your class) are all elements of a course that can be improved by critically applying lessons learned from games.


Difficulty Curves & Scaffolding

Pacing – How Games Keep Things Exciting

Social Difficulty Curve – Easing Players into Communication

Team Learning

The Power of Team Learning

Team-Based Learning: Group Work that Works

Puzzle Break – Teamwork and Escape the Room Games

Overcoming Failure

How Games Empower Us – Education: Agency

Managing Failure in Education

Game-Based Learning

Games in Education – How Games Can Improve Our Schools

Gaming can Make a Better World

Learning with Video Games


Gamification – How the Principles of Play Apply to Real Life

Gamifying Education

Gamification to Improve our World

Classroom Game Design

The Future of Creativity and Innovation is Gamification

What is Gamification? A Few Ideas.

Teaching with 3D GameLab: Quest-Based Learning


Difficulty Curves & Scaffolding

Overview of types of motivation in video games and their use in player engagement:

  • Andrew K. Przybylski, C. Scott Rigby, and Richard M. Ryan, “A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement,” Review of General Pyschology 14, no. 2 (2010): 154-166. (direct link)

Review of the scientific studies of scaffolding in science education:

  • Tzu-Chiang Lin, Ying-Shao Hsu, Shu-Sheng Lin, Maio-Li Changlai, Kun-Yuan Yang, and Ting-Ling Lai, “A Review of Empirical Evidence on Scaffolding for Science Education,” International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 10, no. 2 (April 2012): 437-455. (urldirect link)

Analysis of the implementation and success of scaffolding in a math course:

  • Smit and Van Eerde , “What Counts as Evidence for the Long-term Realisation of Whole-class Scaffolding?” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 2, no. 1 (March 2013): 22-31. (url, direct link)
Team Learning
Overview of team building in practice, notable for the appendices that can be adapted and applied for your class:

  • Barbara Oakley, Richard M. Felder, Rebecca Brent, & Imad Elhajj, “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams,” Journal of Student Centered Learning 2, no. 1 (2004): 9-34. (direct link)

Further reading:

Overcoming Failure

Teachers’ reflections on their own failed implementation of various course assignments and what they learned from those failures:

  • Richard E. Bond, “Failing Lessons: Tales of Disastrous Assignments,” Perspectives on History (January 2013). (url)
  • Teaching Fails, permanent section of The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy. (url)

Encouraging risk taking and failure in students to promote learning:

  • Edward Burger, “Teaching to Fail,” Inside Higher Ed, August 21, 2012. (url)

Analysis of the definition of failure and its inescapable role in literary composition:

  • Alison Carr, “In Support of Failure,” Composition Forum 27 (Spring 2013). (url)

On different types of failure in pedagogy and how each can be harnessed for improving education:

  • Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick, “Failure,” in Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, ed. Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, Katherine D. Harris, and Jentery Sayers (MLA Commons, 2014), ch. 1.  (url)

On applying growth mindset to student assessment and allowing for failure:

  • Geoff N. Masters, “Towards a growth mindset in assessment,” ACER Occasional Essays (2013): 1-5. (url, direct link)

Course assignments that ask students to blog and reflect on their failures in a course:

  • Mark Sample,”Flogging Reflection,” course assignment, 2016. (url)
  • Dorothea Salo, “Failure Assessment,” LIS 644: Digital Trends, Tools, and Debates course syllabus, Summer 2014. (direct link)
Game-Based Learning

Leading author and book in the field of gamification:

  • James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). (book review)

Overview article on game-based learning:

  • Sigmund Tobias, J. Dexter Fletcher, and Alexander P. Wind, “Game-Based Learning” in Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, (Springer 2014), 485-503. (url)

Set of articles on Game-Based Learning from online pedagogy site and community:

  • “Game-Based Learning,” Edutopia. Accessed January 25, 2016. (url)

Sites for two of the most popular game-based learning communities:

  • MinecraftEdu. Accessed January 25, 2016. (url)
  • Teach with Portals. Accessed January 25, 2016. (url)

Summary of the implementation of game-based learning in teaching civil engineering:

  • Martin Ebner, Andreas Holzinger, “Successful implementation of user-centered game based learning in higher education: An example from civil engineering,” Computers & Education 49, no. 3 (November 2007): 873-890. (url)

Further reading:

  • Google Scholar Results for Game-Based Learning

A study of the effectiveness of Duolingo in teaching languages:

  • Roumen Vesslinov and John Grego, “Duolingo Effectiveness Study,” December 2012. (url)

Description of a human behavior and disaster management course built around the idea of surviving a zombie apocalypse:

  • Ben Winsor, “Even Military and Police Want to Take this College Zombie Survival Course,” Business Insider, Oct 21, 2014. (url)

Participant Responses

Video Responses

Reading Responses

Curate for GOBLIN Responses

Write Blog Post Responses

Challenge Activity Responses

Suggested Games

Difficulty Curves & Scaffolding

These are games that we believe use difficulty curves and scaffolding effectively:

Team Learning
These are games that we believe use team learning effectively:

Overcoming Failure

These are games that we believe let players overcoming failure effectively:

Game-Based Learning

These are games that we believe can be used in game-based learning effectively:


These are games that we believe use gamification effectively: