Hello World! I Am Going to Conquer You Now!

January 28, 2008

The idea is simple: take the Diplomacy board game — a game of pure persuasion and rhetoric — and use it to help emerging writers learn the art of thesis-driven writing.

Okay, so the idea isn’t all that simple. But two professors at the Borough of Manhattan Community College are betting this method will pay big dividends. We will use this blog to document the progress of this experimental class, with the hopes of arriving at some practical, portable techniques other writing-centered classrooms can use to augment student learning.

To explore the resources and methods we developed to conduct this experiment, read the abstract below, which explains what the goals and methods of the project, as well as a bit about what we learned. Then, use the navigation bar to the right or the table of contents below, which provide more explanation of our results and some of the materials we used to help students learn.

SUMMARY OF PLAN

We took a semester to study and plan how to design the course so that in the Spring we’d be ready to use Diplomacy to teach the difficulty parts of writing, such as cause-effect, critical thinking, and the planning of writing in general.

WHAT WORKED BEST
We watched as students who were normally quiet in the classroom “came alive” during our Diplomacy game sessions and even helped out other students. This was in accord with our hope that the game would engage kinesthetic and visual learning types, and promote an active, collaborative learning environment.

But what truly worked the best was the teaching of problem-solving skills. Because students had to look at a map and figure out different ways to get their piece from one point to another, they were forced to look at an array of possible solutions then choose the one that seemed the best. The map helped them see a visual representation of their ideas. Related to this, we created sequential learning aids for teaching them how to write a basic paragraph where each sentence had a causal relation to the one before it. The game drilled into students the primal concept that each move leads to another move, a concept that was all important in getting them to write faster, more cohesive body paragraphs.

WHAT WE WOULD CHANGE NEXT TIME

What we would change is how we used two particular items, and we would change them basically the same reasons: over-exposure.

Although The Guns of August is a magnificent book, students found its elaborate sentence structures and historical name-heavy paragraphs intimidating and overly complex. This resulted in Joe and Carlos having to spend more time than we desired on reading comprehension of a text that wasn’t even fictional. In addition, unlike us, students felt that learning the history of WWI (especially from this book) did not add significantly to their enjoyment of the game. Therefore, in future classes we will resist our teacherly impulses to teach them everything about the period, and give them only a very small portion of this text.

In addition, we would like to lessen the classroom use of the actual Diplomacy game. We now envision the game more as a supporting text, rather than the course’s main focus. We arrive at these conclusions for several reasons. First, for some students there was diminishing returns in their enjoyment of the game after having to play it too many times (conversely, other students were excited to find that they were “finally getting it”). More importantly, we may have been giving them too much game instruction and rules training for too little (or too late) a payoff. This became more evident for students who were not used to playing games.  Therefore, the use of Diplomacy for shorter periods of time (or the use of altogether different games) should also be investigated as the ideal approach to games in the classroom.

WHAT WE LEARNED

We learned several important things through the grant. On the positive side, we found that Diplomacy proved to be an exceptionally good tool at teaching cause-and-effect structure. Games like Diplomacy use causation as one of their primary mechanics, and we found that, by using examples from the game and making explicit connections between the causation that plays such an important part in the normal course of the game and the structure of a well-developed paragraph, students were better able to integrate more effective cause-and-effect arguments into their essays. This result leads us to a further hypothesis: can games with other “transferable” mechanics be useful in helping to teach other, hard-to-communicate parts of essay-writing?

Other lessons we learned were less expected. For instance, we found that students were more leery of innovative teaching techniques than we expected them to be. Joe and Carlos entered into the grant thinking that a game would be a selling point in the classroom, making students more willing to participate and more engaged in the class overall. That hypothesis did not hold up universally: while some students relished the idea of playing the game, others balked at it, identifying themselves as “non-game-players” and questioning the value of any game as a means of instruction. We feel this to be an extremely important finding, as theorists such as James Gee and Henry Jenkins–two professors whose research served as some of the primary basis for our assumptions–often paint a rosy picture of the use of games, virtual worlds  and technology in the classroom. The reality is less rosy insofar it is less universal than we had assumed it would be.

Furthermore, while Joe and Carlos worked very hard at making the connection between the game and the course’s overall objectives, some students, even up to the end of the course, had trouble articulating that connection. We believe that the inability to see a connection that was explained and illustrated numerous times throughout the course points to a more general difficulty students as a whole may have in integrating various aspects of their education into a larger epistemology. This conclusion is one that is well-documented in various fields–Carlos encountered it through his experience in First Year Experience and Student Development theory–but perhaps gains a new perspective through the use of a game to teach a concept in the Composition classroom. If students can be taught that they are constantly learning, that games indeed can afford learning experiences as profound as more traditional media and methods, then they may be able to more easily and quickly see connections between the various ways of knowing they are presented with in their post-secondary education.

Finally, on a practical level, we learned that implementing a game as rich and nuanced as Diplomacy requires a great deal ofclass preparation time–and at times a Herculean effort. The dual requirements of creating numerous amounts of scaffolding tools for students and the constant need for thinking-on-the-fly and adjusting to meet students’ needs meant that Joe and Carlos were together putting significantly more time into their game-enhanced classes than they do for their non-game-enhanced sections. From this very important finding, we have several points we wish to make: 1) That, once the resources exist, future class sections should prove much easier to run, and so a game-enhanced section run for the first time shares similarities to the amount of preparation any new course may require for a professor to design; 2) That, even accounting for the point made in 1), a game-enhanced section will very likely always require more work than a non-game-enhanced section; 3) That the game or games used will make a tremendously important difference into the amount of preparation and planning required (e.g. Diplomacy, being a complex, time-intensive game, required much more planning than other games would); 4) That all professors should engage in a serious cost/benefit analysis before implementing a game or games in their class, comparing the amount of time they need to invest in using a game versus the learning they believe the game will yield.

WHAT ADVICE WE WOULD GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO ENGAGE IN A SIMILAR PROJECT

1) Do it! Both Joe and Carlos believe that the project taught them an immense amount about how students learn and how to use innovative teching techniques more effectively in the classroom. 

2) Be prepared for the workload. Any new course design requires a great deal of preparation time, but we feel that preparing to use an innovative teaching method like a game in the classroom will require even more planning and preparation, both before the course starts and during the semester. Ideally, a person working on such an innovative class would be able to convince her or his administration of the value of this approach and would receive support from it in the form of course release or other forms of remuneration that rewards the professor for the up-front investiture in time and effort.

3) Work with someone. Joe and Carlos cannot stress enough the great and consistent benefits they gained through their collaboration. Not only was there another person with whom to share thew workload, but there was another thinking mind off which to bounce ideas, spitball, theorize and conceptualize. 

4) Understand that students may approach this new learning method with trepidation. This point may not surprise some professors who, having tried various innovative teaching techniques in their classrooms before, realize that students might approach unexpected pedagogies charily. But it did surprise Joe and Carlos, who had thought a game would be welcomed as a refreshing change of pace. On this point, we may have less advice to offer than we might on other points, as we worked very hard in trying to make the connection for students between the game and the goals of the course, yet feel that, at the end of the day, some students were not able to see the connection: even if we could see the game having efficacious effects on the students’ writing! Still, we recommend making explicit and constant connections between the game you are using to illustrate some facet of your course and the course’s goals and integrating the game with other materials you are using in the course.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

About Diplomacy — A quick summary of the game we used as the centerpiece of this Developmental Writing course.

About the Grant — Our idea, and how we planned to implement it.

Behind the Curtain: How We Made the Class Happen — Some of the most important planning and document-creation we worked on to orchestrate the class. 

Playing and Writing — How we taught the Diplomacy game to students, and how that learning led to other learning.

Reading and Writing — The texts we used in this WWI-themed course and their role in an overall Developmental Writing course.

Thinking and Writing — Grammar, paragraph structure, and the writing process, all scaffolded through the Diplomacy game.

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