Engaging young learners through Digital Game Based learning

Engaging young learners through Digital Game Based learning


The last decade has seen an increased interest in Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL), which has been suggested as an effective way to engage and motivate young learners. In this research, DGBL was introduced to learners in year 1 in order to increase engagement and motivation levels. It was conducted in a state Primary school located within the East Midlands region. With researches and studies defining today’s learners as a ‘net generation’ and ‘twist-speed generation’. Digital games have become an area of interest that can be used to address the engagement levels of learners today. Methodology included participant observation and focus groups with 6 children, conducting 4 game sessions. This is a small scale study carried out within a short time frame. The findings supported the results of previous research that DGBL is an effective tool to increase learners’ engagement and motivation levels. The research found most learners had an interest in DGBL and showed high levels of engagement in most sessions. They also show that DGBL can develop a range of skills which include peer learning, communication, teamwork and problem solving. Findings also revealed elements of competition, control over learning and learner autonomy as additional themes. The findings suggest for further larger scale research into different elements of DGBL. The research recommends the use of DGBL more often in the Year 1 classroom as children enjoy this form of learning concept, if developed and planned effectively within curriculum contents.

Author: Rajvir Cheema 

Publication Date: 2014 


Context and Background:

With the rise of technology inventions and its use within education, Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL) has become an engaging tool to motivate learners in primary and secondary classrooms. ‘Digital Game-Based Learning is precisely about fun and engagement, and the coming together of serious learning and interactive entertainment into a newly emerging and highly exciting medium- Digital Learning Games’ (Prensky, 2001:5). DGBL can be used as a form of ‘learning through the game’ that can be developed into a digital educational game to be used within classrooms, allowing learners to use technology to study different topics through the use of digital games (Wu et al, 2012:269). The last decade has seen an increase of DGBL and some argue this to be the new exciting way of learning for today’s ‘net generation’ as it is engaging and motivating (Bryon Review 2008; Egenfeldt-Neilsen 2007; Van Erk 2006; Prensky 2001). This research aims to use digital games in order to engage learners within areas of Mathematics. Research on DGBL shows that this form of learning is effective in engaging young learners in almost every topic (Egenfeldt-Neilsen 2007; Facer 2003). A range of games can be used such as computer based games, educational gaming software and online games.

The school currently has 1 computer room which is used by the whole school (439 pupils. DGBL was chosen as a form of technology enhanced practice in order to increase the use of digital games within the Year 1 classroom. Having worked within the classroom, it was observed that some learners were not engaged during lesson input and were often distracted during whole class learning. During which the teacher would use interactive word documents or a simple whiteboard to explain the topics. Facer (2003: 2) states that DGBL ‘…motivates young people in a way that formal education doesn’t’. Therefore using digital games to engage learners could be an effective approach if introduced within the Year 1 class. The Year 1 currently uses no set of form digital games or programmes to enhance learning.

This research aims to use digital games in order to increase young learner’s engagement within some areas of Mathematics that they are currently learning. With the use of computer online games, the research will look into the influence these have upon the learner’s engagement levels in lessons and observe their behaviour during the games session. The research aims to look into three aspects:

  • Can game based learning motivate young children in my setting?
  • Measuring engagement levels when playing the game through behaviour and participation
  • Do children show more interest in a topic when using DGBL compared to verbal input in the classroom?

Literature Review:

Over the last decade, research and gaming programmes for educational purposes have seen an increase in different areas of learning. Along with schools and children, work places have also adopted this approach with adults for training purpose. Children’s interest in technology overall has risen in the past decade, with one early example of the ‘hole in the wall’ project by Mitra (2001) – (see appendix 1 for increase in technology overall in 2009). The project set up computers in walls in India for children, with no guidance or instructions on how to use them. The project found that without any tuition, within hours children were drawing, playing games, and downloading content from the internet. Mitra (2001) found children to be ‘highly motivated…and picked up skills and tasks by constructing their own learning environment’. Mitra concluded that with ‘entertaining and motivating content’ children develop an interest in learning, especially with the use of computers. With many studies carried out on the impact of DGBL, results have mostly been positive and encouraging. Motivation and engagement are considered the key purposes for using DGBL in classrooms, which is found in all DGBL researches (see Douch et al 2010; Sandford et al 2006; Prensky 2001).

Ghergulescu & Muntean (2010) define motivation in a learning context as the attempt to ‘accomplish goal of knowledge and to maintain participation in the learning process’ (2010:72). Bandura’s theory of ‘self-efficacy’ can be applied here in which self-efficacy influences the level of commitment within the task and the amount of effort a person exerts (Bandura, 1994). A similar commitment and motivation is required from children that shows their effort towards their learning. Therefore DGBL can be used as a way to accomplish motivation towards learning. With motivation evolving as the key reason, games can enhance the level of ‘self-efficacy’ within children to enables them to not only engage further, but also make more effort with their learning (Younie and Leask, 2013).

There is a general agreement, and evidence to support this, to show an increase in motivation and engagement using DGBL (Perrota et al 2013; Johnson et al, 2011). Chen et al (2012:317) found in a study of 53 students that digital games showed positive outcomes and ‘provide promising possibilities to motivate and engage students in subject learning’. The study also found that students favoured this approach and it also encouraged active participation. Struppert (2010:365) further supports this stating that ‘electronic games have the potential to captivate less motivated and interested learners’. In a large scale study by ‘Future Lab’, Sandford et al (2006:2) found that ‘teachers and students reported that using games in lessons was motivating’. In addition to motivation and engagement, studies have also found other skills that are developed via the use of DGBL. Kirkland et al (2010:13) while conducting workshops with teachers and students found that ‘games were seen to be a strong vehicle to develop social and collaborative skills’. Digital games support a range of skills such as teamwork, communication, learning of rules, reflection and problem-solving (Douch et al, 2010).

But why digital games?

Building from the idea that DGBL promotes a range of skills, there is also an argument that learners today require technology-enhanced approaches (Egenfeldt-Neilsen 2007; Van Erk 2006). Van Erk (2006:17) states the ‘net generation’ and ‘twitch-speed generation’ (Egenfeldt-Neilson, 2007), who have become disengage learners ‘…require multiple streams of information, want quick interactions with content’ which are ‘characteristics matched well with DGBL’. Prensky (2001) highlighted this earlier in his work, referring to the positive outcomes of DGBL. He states that learning should be exciting and ‘invent new ways of learning’ that can engage today’s ‘new world, style and capabilities’ (Prensky, 2001:8). There is also some supporting evidence to suggest that today’s ‘net generation’ can benefit from digital games. Sandford et al (2006:2) found from a sample of 2,334 students that 82% of students played games outside the lesson regularly and ‘89% think it would make lessons more interesting’.

However, despite a rise in digital games and technology use, the figures mismatched with teachers. Sandford et al (2006:2) found 72% of teachers did not play any games, showing the ‘net generation’ gap stated by Van Erk (2006). Williamson (2009) found similar results in a study of 1,634 teachers in the UK. The study found that 42% of teachers never play computer games, but 60% would consider using them in their future teaching. The ‘fact that over 40% never play games at all is likely to be a contributing factor to the lack of knowledge and skills in gaming often cited as a key reason for teachers not to use games in schools (Williamson, 2009:23). A study in Scotland by Groff et al (2010:80) found that some teachers felt unsure on which games to use and how, they wanted to establish clear aims of how the games can enhance children’s learning beforehand, as they did not want to risk children learning experience. With learners/students now using more technology and devices outside of school, it can be argued that those learners require some form of digital learning which matches their life and learning styles.

Nonetheless, it is not only the mismatch of students and teachers use of games, but also other factors that need to be considered prior to introducing DGBL to students. Tsai et al (2012) found in a small scale study that, although games improved motivation, some students become distracted by the game contents and avoided reading the learning content. The study claims that this can be the ‘expected reason why some students could not acquire knowledge through playing’ (Tsai et al, 2012:248). It has been stated by some that DGBL is not an easier approach to teach and should be implemented with other teaching styles. This is because not all learners are keen on games (Tsai et al 2012; Struppert 2010; Facer 2003). Facer (2003:1) argues that not all children are ‘new net generation’ and it should not be assumed that all children will find DGBL engaging. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ and children have a diversity of learning styles which should not be ignored. Sandford et al (2006) suggested that factors such as ‘facilities, planning and the specific need of individual teachers’, are contributing factors to how games are implemented and used in classrooms. A number of studies have recommended teacher training in order to develop the teacher’s understanding of game based learning, and how they can effectively support learning using other traditional learning styles along with DGBL (Groff et al 2