Using games to activate students in PBL: Reflections from a CPD workshop

By Patrick Bijsmans & Anna Harris

One of the key characteristics of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is its emphasis – or even dependence – on active student engagement. One way of activating students in such a context is the use of games. On 7 June 2022 we hosted an interactive Continuing Professional Development (CPD) workshop aimed at exploring the possibilities that games offer in a PBL context. We knew of examples such as large scale simulations used in year 1 of the Bachelor in European Studies, the use of a card game to teach observational skills and that many of were using short ice-breakers to get discussions in our groups going, but we had a sense that there were many more examples in our midst.

So we set up the workshop in a Skillshare Workshop format, with the aim to take time out and share experiences with games in teaching (if any), learn new skills, brainstorm ideas, build resources and connections, and have a lot of fun in the process. In spirit of the latter, we also started the workshop with a paper plane icebreaker. Participants received a sheet of A4 paper to write down a question they would like to discuss during the workshop. They were then asked to fold the paper into an airplane and toss it into the room. Another participant then answered the question and once again tossed the airplane into the room. We repeated this process three times, with the aim of gathering some first questions and responses to shape the rest of the workshop.

Ahead of the workshop participants were asked to bring games they tried on students, games they want to think with, games they’d like to try on colleagues and any other materials. After the airplane bonanza we asked participants to share their experience with playing games to map options and get a sense of how games are used. Karlijn Haagsman, Alexandra Supper and Anna each brought games to the workshop and discussed their experience. Others such as Vincent Bijman talked about their experience using icebreakers, with Eli Sapir and Patrick bringing in the example of using bingos. Our colleagues from the History department gave further context to debate, noting that games have been present in teaching and learning for a long time. Manuel Stoffers even brought a 500-year (!) old card game to the workshop – read about the card game here.

This first discussion and sharing of ideas already was testament to the fact that many colleagues already use game-like elements in their teaching. One of the key issues raised in this context was that games should be used as a tool to improve learning, not as a means in themselves. And what better way to test this then to actually play games! We opted for UNO with Alexandra, Codenames with Karlijn and Pandemic with Anna.

Alexandra uses UNO to practice participatory observation. Her reason to choose UNO is that most people will know this game and its rules, which makes focussing on the pedagogical goals easier. Karlijn uses Codenames to have students engage in concept learning and discussion. This game also comes with an online version, which may be particular useful in today’s learning environments. Finally, Anna brought Pandemic because it inspired a (pre-COVID) exercise in designing a PBL assignment that resulted in an assignment centred around a fictional pandemic. Both the assignment and the game stimulate reflections on decision-making in interdisciplinary groups. Everyone had a chance to get a taster of all three games before we moved on to the last part of the workshop, which was aimed at a broader reflection on the questions formulated earlier.

During the workshop, participants voted with star stickers on the paper plane questions they found most relevant to them, and the most important to discuss further. This generated five central questions:

  1. How to align games with learning goals/intended learning outcomes?
  2. How can we integrate games in PBL in a way that complements traditional content?
  3. How to ensure sufficient time to explain and reflect on game rules?
  4. Would it be possible to design a game with students – perhaps even as their course?
  5. What are the downsides of using games?

While we did not have immediate answers to these questions – discussions focussed on practical issue such as the need for a games library and for (SOLVER) hours for meaningful integration of games – we think that ending this blog with them might help to continue the debate and give you an insight into what to take into account when considering to introduce games in your courses.

If you are interested in exploring the possibilities of using games in your teaching, why not check out the following resources?

About the authors

Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching & Learning European Studies and faculty CPD coordinator. He teaches BA and MA level courses in European Studies, where he has used bingos and other forms of icebreakers to activate students. Anna Harris is Associate Professor of the Social Studies of Medicine. She teaches in the Bachelor of Arts and Culture and is involved in several research projects at the Faculty looking at the role of the senses and materials in learning.