Taking Student Motivations Into Account

Great session at TLC this year, with lots of interesting papers and ideas for simulations and games, including another wonderful workshop by ALPS’ own Victor Asal.

My own paper (with Nina Kollars) dealt with the issue of student motivation and engagement.  Our previous work was on the first principles of simulation and game design: that is, the instructor’s purpose for the game and its function within a classroom.  This new paper is on the next stage of design: taking student motivations into account.  Students approach our classrooms with different skills and motivations.  On the skill side, some may be expert, experienced gamers, while others may have little knowledge of how to work with the rules of the game; they may also differ in their teamwork abilities.  These differing skills–which may have nothing to do with our material or content–may impact the play of the game and the readiness and ability of students to learn from it.

Just as important is the differing motivations that students bring to the classroom.  This is not a groundbreaking observation by any sense of the word–psychologists have known this for decades. To use their terms, some students may be intrinsically motivated–interested in mastery of the material for its own sake–while others may be extrinsically motivated by a grade or some other reward or fear of punishment.  Such students will approach a game very differently, and our design of games should take these differing motivations into account.  An ungraded simulation or grade may fail to elicit full participation or learning in an extrinsically motivated student, but a game that IS graded may focus the intrinsic learner on external rewards, and perhaps lessen their intrinsic interest (see Deci 1971 and 1972 amongst many others).

Our point is that our knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations should impact the way we design our games.  We should not assume that a grade–even one of participation–is necessary to engineer participation in our games.  Games that are used in place or supplemental to lecture should be graded no more than attendance at a lecture.  Grades in fact might produce perverse incentives for students in a game, where they respond to the external motivators and not the game as we have built it.  Thus we must carefully consider how grading and other extrinsic motivators might influence the way students interact with our sim, and design accordingly.

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