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The Power of Play in Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Since our unexpected dalliance with porn, we have applied various play strategies, with considerable success, to other courses from educational psychology to the hard sciences, and from small classes to large classes of over 100, from labs to seminars to journal clubs. Short of endorsing porn, we embrace the path begun by our faux pas of incorporating highly diverse and interactive processes, facilitating deep learning of difficult content in every class session.


The posting below looks at the role of games and play in teaching and learning. It is by Professors Deborah A. Wingert and Tom Molitor of the University of Minnesota (see end for contact information), and is #41 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 17 Number 4, May, 2008.© Copyright 1996-2008. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.

Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Science Education for Everyone: Why and What?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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"But, We Didn't Mean To Teach Porn": The Power of Play in Teaching and Learning


Our descent into "porn" began innocently. Our Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) course, Teaching in Higher Education, filled with 30 doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows enthusiastically seeking guidance as future professors. We held a particular session, Technology Enhanced Learning, in a cutting-edge campus lab, where all students participated throughout the interactive session on individual computers that were linked to a huge screen in front.

All went according to plan . . . until the Scavenger Hunt activity. As planned, students worked in small groups

of four to six with their assigned, intriguing, education-related websites, with the expectation of presenting the website and their highlights to the rest of the class. One group of future family social science profes- sors was particularly enthusiastic when it came their turn to share their assigned "Virtual Autopsy" site. They eagerly came to the head of the class and typed in the URL to share their treasures.

In their excitement, they accidentally typed in a few inaccurate symbols, and the huge screen (and

30 individual computers!) instantly displayed an obscene porn site in all its "glory"! With the entire class stunned, the group furiously tried to access the (clean and educational!) "Virtual Autopsy" site, succeeding only in dragging all of us further and further through the porn site. The class quickly shifted from shock to uncontrollable laughter.

Eventually the class resumed. Our technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, now permanently etched in students' memory, had set a serendipitous precedent. Little did we know that such a glaring faux pas would set teaching and learning expectations for the remainder of the semester. Our course continued in infamy, generating once in a lifetime course evaluations. Word quickly spread about our fun "porn" class. Students from other sections attended in record numbers. The "bar" of teaching and learning had been raised. We, in turn, planned

each session to rival the previous in using playful and meaningful strategies to teach difficult, complex content. Our future professors experienced and incorporated into their repertoire the significance of

both content and process in teaching and learning.

Rationale: Why Play During Class?

Why should students play during class? Keep in mind four principles. First, a sense of play engages the

experiential mind of students. Sivasailam Thiagarajan (2003) reminds us that our experiential mind tends

to think and learn fast, in concert with impressive long-term retention. Former Harvard University President Derek Bok (2006) concurs in his book, Our Underachieving Colleges, contending that research has long shown the value of teaching with diverse and interactive strategies, while the continuing tendency to lecture traditionally and cover massive amounts of content adversely impacts students' critical thinking and ability to solve problems. Bok reports that the average student retains only 42% of the material by the end of the lecture, and only 20% one week after the lecture.

Second, play provides the opportunity for students to apply a variety of multiple intelligences. Rather than focusing narrowly on traditionally passive forms of teaching and learning such as lectures and taking scrupulous

notes, playful strategies frequently incorporate at least one or more of Gardner's multiple intelligences

(2003), impacting a wider range of students:

* Linguistic (e.g., reading, discussions)

* Logical-mathematical (e.g., charts, thinking games)

* Kinesthetic (e.g., doing, demonstrations)

* Spatial (e.g., handouts, overheads)

* Musical (e.g., using/creating songs)

* Interpersonal (e.g., small group activities)

* Intrapersonal (e.g., journal writing, reflecting)

* Naturalist (e.g., outdoor activity, treasure hunts)

Third, lively strategies provide significant opportunities for the professor to plan for, and students to further develop and apply, skills in both emotional literacy and interpersonal relations. Students work with others in diverse situations requiring teamwork, collaboration, and, perhaps, friendly competition. This provides ample opportunity for students to refine a multitude of interpersonal skills, such as: sharing ideas, asking for clarification, checking understanding, providing support, offering constructive criticism, encouraging teamwork, etc. Likewise, students can gain invaluable skills regarding emotional maturity, including: identifying and expressing emotions, identifying constructive (or destructive) thoughts and feelings in oneself and others, calmly expressing emotions, focusing criticism on behavior rather than people, expressing empathy toward others, and overall monitoring and managing the affective dynamics of given circumstances.

Fourth, classes that employ a variety of strategies, accommodate highly diverse groups of students.

Historically, teaching in higher education has accommodated students who excel in passive lecture listening and note-taking. As Felder (1993, 1996, 2005) noted, students with diverse, non- traditional types of learning

preferences left higher education in high numbers. When Brigham Young University researchers (Harb, et al., 1993) documented this phenomenon, they intervened by developing curricula to accommodate diverse groups of students with increased engaging learning strategies, including play. Results indicated that the computer science department was now retaining highly qualified students, who represented widely diverse learning

preferences. Revised curricula now included activities to connect students with meaningful, deeper learning applicable to their lives.

Just What Are These Playful Strategies?

A wealth of engaging strategies already exists, thanks to brilliant contributions from Ken Jones (1997), Bernie Dodge (2005), and, especially, Sivasailam Thiagarajan (2003). These strategies include a wide range of activities, such as: role-plays, case studies, constructive controversies, simulations, jigsaws, scavenger hunts, labs, group presentations, projects, group panels, peer grids/frames, etc. Other popular activities include:

Classroom Millionaire, Classroom Jeopardy, Ultimate Game Show, Classroom Quiz Bowl, Classroom Feud, and No Whammies (details available at tutorials/PPT-games/ and testcreation.html).

We have connected complex content with our own designed games: BINGO, Stump the Class, Name That Stage, Scholar-Bee, and Bull (Wingert and Molitor, 2005). "Stump the Class" is patterned after David Letterman's/Johnny Carson's "Stump the Band." In this case, the students (in teams of four to six) first design a question that requires high levels of critical thinking (i.e., upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy), and then pose their challenging question; the teams attempts to answer within a given time limit, earning graded points for accuracy. BINGO, played like the regular game, can be designed to require critical thinking in applications, analysis, and evaluation.

"Name That Stage," a variant of a game show, "Name That Tune," requires students (or teams) to

answer high level questions relative to any course content organized in stages, phases, levels, timelines, dates, sequences, categories, etc. Like the previous game, students earn points for accuracy.

"Scholar-Bee," based on an old-fashioned spelling bee, requires students/student teams to process course content and critically analyze cases, problems, or applications posed by the professor. Given teams of four to six or the class divided into two sides, students in turn answer the question posed when their assigned number is called, again earning points for accuracy.

"Bull," vaguely resembling the game of B.S. (Being Sneaky!), gives students/student teams the opportunity to critically analyze course content posed as cases, problems, or applications, as in the other activities; in this case, however, students must determine if the information presented by the instructor is fully accurate/logically reasonable, or identify the error, the faulty reasoning . . . the "bull."


Since our unexpected dalliance with porn, we have applied various play strategies, with considerable

success, to other courses from educational psychology to the hard sciences, and from small classes to large classes of over 100, from labs to seminars to journal clubs. Short of endorsing porn, we embrace the

path begun by our faux pas of incorporating highly diverse and interactive processes, facilitating deep learning of difficult content in every class session.


* Bok, D. 2006. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

* Dodge, B. 2005. WebQuest Page: (Learn from Bernie Dodge how to create your own interactive online learning materials).

* Felder, R. 1993. "Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education," Journal of College Science Teaching, 23(5): 286-290. An updated presentation of the Felder-Silverman model.

* Felder, R. 1996. "Matters of Style," ASEE Prism, 6 (4): 18-23.

* Felder, R.; Brent, R. 2005. "Understanding Student Differences," Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1): 57-72. An exploration of differences in student learning styles, approaches to learning (deep, surface, and strategic), and levels of intellectual development.

* Gardner, H. April, 2003. "Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years." Invited Address, American Educational Research Association.

* Harb, J.; Durrant, S.; Terry, R. 1993. "Use of the Kolb Learning Cycle and the 4MAT System in Engineering Education," Journal of Engineering Education, 82(2): 70-77.

* Jones, K. 1997. Games and Simulations Made Easy: Practical Tips to Improve Learning Through Gaming. London: Kogan Page.

* McKeachie, W.J.; Svinicki, M. 2006. "Dealing with student problems and problem students," Chapter 14 (pp. 172-190) in Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 12th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

* Thiagarajan, S. 2003. Design Your Own Games and Activities. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

* "Virtual Autopsy." pathology/teach/va/titlpag1.html

* Wingert, D.; Molitor, T. June, 2005. "But We Didn't Mean To Teach Porn: The Power of Play in Teaching and Learning," Teaching For A Change (National) Conference, Westminster, Colorado.


Deborah A. Wingert, Ph.D.

Director of Educational Development

College of Veterinary Medicine

Preparing Future Faculty Coordinator

Center for Teaching and Learning

University of Minnesota

315 Science Classroom Building

222 Pleasant St. S.E.

Minneapolis, MN 55455

Telephone: (612) 625-3405


Tom Molitor

Professor in Veterinary & Population


and Early Career Resource Teacher

University of Minnesota

1365 Gortner Ave.

St. Paul, MN 55108

Telephone: (612) 625-5295