About the Grant

The goals of our 2007-2008 Faculty Development Grant were to use the game of Diplomacy in our Spring 2008 to combat two significant obstacles to learning in the remedial-writing classroom:

  1. MOTIVATION, including general class preparedness and attendance; taking responsibility for homework assignments; and exhibiting behavior that is conducive for success in the classroom.
  2. PROBLEM-SOLVING, including creating arguments; understanding how literature provides solutions and theories for real life; how logic and critical thinking skills add value to education; and how to get one’s point across through effective, audience-based communication.

When they brought the Diplomacy board game to the developmental composition classroom, what Joe and Carlos attempted to do was not an innovation in writing pedagogy — their idea, like almost all ideas concerning writing pedagogy that have come since the 70s, is one that builds upon the knowledge we have gained from process-based writing and Freirean teaching philosophy — but in delivery. How do we teach students the need and the value of process-based writing? How do we teach students to take ownership over their own education? We believed an important link could be made between how the game teaches students to think ahead and seek solutions, one turn at a time, to developing and structuring each body paragraph of a holistic essay. We also wished to introduce sample ACT essays and essay-tips to students in a game-like, problem-solving fashion, extending the skills learned in Diplomacy.

And that is what we did! We devoted roughly eight class periods of one hour and 40 minutes each (less than 14 hours total) over the semester to playing the game and studying its rules, and never more than one day per week. The rest of the class ran as a typical English and writing test-preparation course, including the teaching of grammar and paragraph structure. We also redesigned our entire literature content so as to use only literature related to World War One (primarily All Quiet on the Western Front and The Guns of August) and gaming.

During the timed game play environment, debates with other players are usually rapid and rushed. Students had to look at the map, puzzle over the different ways to get their piece from Point A to Point B, identify possible obstacles to the path, then figure out the best solution (by eliminating or avoiding such obstacles). They have to make fast connections, then create quick, on-the-fly arguments to convince other players as to why they should “stay out my country’s way!” or “give me some support on my move to Paris?” because of strategic reasons like “England’s gonna come around the Norwegian Sea to Sweden in two turns, and wipe you out see, but I can block them for you easy here in Norway.

Such arguments are always strategic, so they never exhibit the content of an argument that would appear on any essay of course; the verbal argument environment serves only as a training tool to: 1) get them into a quick argumentative and analytical frame of mind and 2) Help them see a visual representation of their ideas, so they can logically sequence those ideas onto paper (order writing). Moreover, even if the verbal arguments are not that sophisticated (e.g., not explaining the ramifications of a player’s move more than one or two moves ahead, or simply saying “Hey! I helped you last time, so help me out here, okay?”), the game is always requiring them to think ahead silently at least four spaces or more, and for all of their pieces. Many students commented in their assessments of the game experience that they felt the game was teaching them to “seek multiple solutions” to a problem.

One of the most immediate advantages to using games in education is simply the fact that games are innovative ways to present material. Games employ multiple intelligences (logical, spatial, bodily, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) beyond the linguistic, read/write intelligence required in traditional classrooms. These new intelligences’ appeal to different learning styles can awaken a student to how to understand the rest of the course content. For example, the kinesthetic or “hands-on” learner enjoys touching and moving the objects of knowledge in some way, whether through labs, trips, or the kind of moving around involved in acting or performance. Visual types enjoy graphs, like the one we’re about to give you and perhaps has already caught your eye, the “movie-over-the-book,” colors, spaces, and other symbolic components that help them strengthen their recall of a subject.

Specifically, therefore, we saw the Diplomacy game as engaging students in an active, collaborative learning environment that would appeal to the kinesthetic and visual learning types, teaching them logical intelligence of game-like thinking the whole while, all up to the moment where the student was responsible for actually writing their moves on a piece of a paper (linguistic intelligence), the very same moves they had had spent the majority of the class puzzling over, debating, and test-moving pieces towards.

On the whole, developmental writing students come to the writing classroom woefully under-prepared in the ways to develop a paragraph. At the heart of this problem is their lack of training in the ways in which to do two main things:

  1. Concatenate ideas so that “evidentiary resonance” continues to build, and;
  2. Know when they have included enough evidence to have proven their points.

These ideas are neither mutually exclusive nor symbiotically bound, but both are necessary skills, and both are necessary elements of cause and effect arguments. In other words, even the “alternative” ways we tell students there are to develop a paragraph — use an illustrative example, compare and contrast, explicate a process or method, define terms, create a hypothetical situation, include research — all must also be causal. Students who lack either skill (or both) will write paragraphs that, respectively, are either disjointed, meandering, desultory and vague, or on the one hand too short to have proven the intended point or (much less common) too long, including less relevant data that might better serve in a future paragraph or, for the sake of economy, might better be excluded.

One of the greatest successes we found in the Diplomacy experiment came in teaching cause and effect. There are four main reasons for this:

  1. Students received a meaningful and significant context in which to understand the importance of cause and effect. 
  2. Students with learning styles or than verbal/linguistic could better understand causal relationships (e.g. students who were visual learners could see the chain of consequences that would emerge from a given course of action).
  3. Students were practicing verbal cause/effect arguments during their negotiations in a way that came so naturally to them they did not even realize they were doing so until it was pointed out to them. This allowed them to see that cause and effect is a tool that is already a part of their linguistic repertoire.
  4. If students did not follow a cause and effect relationship through far enough in the game, the game enforced immediate consequences (e.g. loss of property).

Initially, Joe and Carlos were optimistic about the idea that using a fun method to learn like a boardgame would help students overcome the sense of failure and the subsequent lack of motivation that arises in part due to that sense. Our data, however, do not support that claim. By and large, attendance did not improve in our Diplomacy sections over non-Diplomacy sections we have taught in previous semesters. For some students, the game made the course more interesting; for others, the game was actually a disincentive. Some students immediately took to the game and went out of their way to learn more about it. One student in Carlos’s class went out and acquired a computer-based version of the game so he could master it more quickly. Other students, even ones who were “good” at it, declared that they did not enjoy playing it. A response like that is tantamount to a student who masters a course’s content even though she is not particularly interested in it.

Interestingly, our students were leery of the use of a boardgame as a teaching tool. All the way to the end of the course, some students declared that they did not understand how the game was supposed to help them improve their writing (include quotes/data from surveys and essays). Though students, almost to a one, engaged well in the game when it was played during class, though their writing continued to improve, and though both professors went to extraordinary lengths to metacognitively show the connections between the thinking processes of Diplomacy and essay composition, some students either did not comprehend it or did not believe it.

The antidote to that suspect approach to new pedagogies may come through the environment created in the classroom. Even as students protested against the game itself, they participated, enjoyed themselves, and in many cases retroactively saw the value in what they learned through play of the game. They were willing to do so because they felt that the instructors had their best interests in mind, were working hard for them, had a plan, and had a great deal of knowledge to impart.

During the summer, we wrote the first draft of an article that explained our conclusions from using Diplomacy. Although the use of games and simulations in higher education pedagogy is well-established in fields as divergent as nursing, engineering, the natural and social sciences, and the liberal arts (and Diplomacy in particular has been used in many high schools and colleges), we found zero research on using the game in the composition classroom, and very little in the college-level classroom in general. Therefore, we hope that our article will be breaking new ground in games research.

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One Response to “About the Grant”

  1. Hello World! I Am Going to Conquer You Now! « Says:

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

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