Problem-based learning and electronic games

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1 Introduction

This entry examines how electronic games can provide support for Problem-Based Learning (PBL).


Stephen Ash
Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Problem-based learning

PBL is a learning approach grounded in the constructivist theory of learning (Savery & Duffy, 1995). Mills (n.d.) explains that learners develop skills in team-work, problem solving, and independent thinking through learning that is “active, task-oriented, and self-directed” (Background, para. 1). In PBL, the learner is the focus and knowledge is created rather than disseminated (Putnam, 2001; Savery & Duffy). Students collaborate with each other to form knowledge that can be used to solve problems (Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Ertmer, & Simons, 2006). According to Hmelo-Silver (2004), PBL “is well suited to helping students become active learners because it situates learning in real-world problems and makes students responsible for their learning” (p. 236). The teacher, as facilitator, provides relevant experiences that catch the interest of the learner and foster collaboration (Hmelo-Silver; Newman et al., 2003; Putnam, 2001).

In a historical analysis, Januszewski and Pearson (1999) reveal six key features of the PBL approach. They are as follows:

  1. the problem is introduced before any dissemination of knowledge
  2. knowledge should be developed on an as-needed basis
  3. intrinsic motivation in which the learner takes ownership is key
  4. there has to be a connection to the real world
  5. learning is promoted
  6. working as individuals or in groups

Through PBL, learners can identify knowledge deficiencies, reflect, and be flexible in their thinking (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

3 Electronic games

Students of the 21st century have grown up in a world where use of computers, cell phones, and gaming consoles are second nature (Sancho, Moreno-Ger, Fuentes-Fernandez, and Fernandez-Manjon, 2009). Wikipedia defines electronic games as “a game that employs electronics to create an interactive system with which a player can play” and can include items such as computer games, handhelds, arcade-style standalone machines, and non-visual products (“Electronic games,” n.d.).

Electronic games have been in existence for over thirty years and have become very pervasive and influential. This pervasive influence has lead to an increased interest in their effect on learners and their learning (Squire, 2003). However, James Paul Gee clearly states that games are not meant to replace teachers and books (Stoerger, 2007). A good video game is challenging yet not too difficult and must guide the learner towards action (Stoerger). Kiili (2007) further clarifies the vision of an effective video game as one that has authenticity, collaboration, learning by doing, and time for reflection.

The challenge then presented to the designer is maintaining the entertainment value while providing an educational product (Royle, 2008). Game designers such as Smith and Mann (2002) often see the focus on facilitation of learning as a risk in that it may remove the idea of enjoyment and thus remove the notion of a game.

4 Electronic games and problem-based learning

Electronic games can be used effectively in the PBL approach and still maintain authenticity and relevance (Royle, 2008). This connection between video games and problem-based learning has been well established by researchers such as Barrows (1996) (as cited in Ma, Williams, Prejean, & Richard, 2006). Royle explains that “real learning does happen in games, and the learning engaged by gamers shares many attributes with the pedagogy of problem-based learning” (The Killer Application Section, para. 6). Prensky (2000) also indicates that a learner’s critical thinking and problem solving skills can be enhanced through the use of electronic games (as cited in Yoo & Zellner, 2006). According to Kiili (2007), “educational games may offer a viable strategy for developing students’ problem solving skills” (p. 394). These games force the learner to become an active participant in obtaining necessary knowledge in order to further their progress in the task. The Problem-Based Gaming model presented by Kiili demonstrates this idea of developing problem solving skills. Learners test hypotheses and reflect on results in a cyclical manner which leads to the development on knowledge and learning. The reflection stage is seen as the most important as this is where the learner critiques and internalizes the knowledge used to solve the presented problems (Kiili).

A key form of games known as adaptive role playing games can provide a source of learning from a problem-based approach. According to Sancho et al.(2009), role playing games “offer immersive and realistic scenarios with engaging narratives that challenge the user to solve problems embedded in the game” (Motivation, Narrative, and Role playing Games Section, para. 2). The challenges push the limit of the player, information is in context and on time, and collaboration is encouraged to allow for problem solving (Sancho et al.).

Chuang and Chen (2009) explored the effects of video games on children’s cognitive learning. The study involved 108 third-grade students from a middle/high socio-economic background. A control group was given instruction on a topic through computer-assisted instruction that was text-based. The experimental group received instruction on the same topic through a computer-based video game. In both cases, the presence of a teacher was removed. Based on that study, Chuang and Chen found that computer video games can promote problem solving by making the players recognize “multiple solutions for problems” (p. 7). These games can also improve “critical thinking”, “higher-level cognition”, and “higher-order thinking” (Chuang & Chen, p. 8). Likewise, Kiili (2007) found that learners test various strategies throughout the game to expand their knowledge base and develop “creative problem solving” skills (p.398).

5 References

Barrows, H.S. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, 3-12. Retrieved on February 5, 2010 from http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/112752416/abstract.

Chuang, T., & Chen, W. (2009). Effect of computer-based video games on children: An experimental study. Educational Technology & Society, 12(2), 1-10. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.ifets.info/journals/12_2/1.pdf.

Electronic games. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved on February 8, 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_games.

Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn?. Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.springerlink.com/content/j360715xw085866r/.

Januszewski, A., & Pearson, R. (1999). Problem-based learning: A historical analysis. Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Papers Presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology [AECT] (21st, Houston, TX, February 10-14, 1999). Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/15/f6/76.pdf.

Kiili, K. (2007). Foundation for problem-based gaming. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(3), 394-404. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117984142/abstract.

Ma, Y., Williams, D., Prejean, L., & Richard, C. (2006). A research agenda for developing and implementing educational computer games. In Simonson, M., Crawford, M. (Eds.). Annual Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Papers Presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. 2, 285-291. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/3c/f4/38.pdf.

Mills, D. (n.d.). Problem-based learning. Higher Education Academy Subject Network for Sociology, Anthropology, Politics. Retrieved on February 8, 2010 from http://www.c-sap.bham.ac.uk/resources/project_reports/ShowOverview.asp?id=4.

Newman, M., Ambrose, K., Corner, T., Evans, J., Morris-Vincent, P., Quinn, S., . . . Vernon, L. (2003). Evaluating educational impact: The approach followed by the project on the effectiveness of problem based learning (PEPBL). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Council (Chicago, IL, April 21-25, 2003). Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1a/ff/39.pdf.

Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A., Ertmer, P., & Simons, K. (2006). Student strategies for succeeding in PBL environments: Experiences and perceptions of low self-regulating students. In Simonson, M., Crawford, M. (Eds.). Annual Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Papers Presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. 1, 305-311. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/3c/b5/b7.pdf#page=314.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Putnam, A. (2001). Problem-based teaching and learning in technology education. Paper Presented at the Annual Conference of the Association for Career and Technical Education (75th, New Orleans, LA, December 13-16, 2001). Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1a/10/c4.pdf.

Royle, K. (2008). Game-based learning: A different perspective. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 4(4), Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.innovateonline.info/pdf/vol4_issue4/Game-Based_Learning-__A_Different_Perspective.pdf.

Sancho, P., Moreno-Ger, P., Fuentes-Fernandez, R., & Fernandez-Manjon, B. (2009). Adaptive role playing games: An immersive approach for problem based learning. Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 110-124. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.ifets.info/journals/12_4/10.pdf.

Savery, J., & Duffy, T. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31-38. Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.udel.edu/soe/whitson/curriculum/files/Savery_Duffy_PBL_Ait.pdf.

Smith, L., & Mann, S. (2002). Playing the game: A model for gameness in interactive game based learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual NACCQ, 397-402. Retrieved on February 3, 2010 from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.19.1688&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Squire, K. (2003). Video games in education. International Journal of Intelligent Simulations and Gaming, 2(1), 49-62. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.100.8500&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Stoerger, S. (2007). Book review – good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning and literacy [Review of the book Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning and literacy]. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 8(3). Retrieved on January 18, 2010 from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/498/958.

Yoo, S. & Zellner, R. (2006). Monitoring sokoban problem solving: What a case study implies for metacognitive support for game-based problem solving. In Simonson, M., Crawford, M. (Eds.). Annual Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Papers Presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. 1, 390-398. Retrieved on January 31, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/3c/b5/b7.pdf.