Game-Based Learning

Review Session Games That Work

Game-based review sessions can increase student engagement—and are backed by learning science.

April 19, 2023
Gugurat / iStock

If you walk into my high school psychology or history classroom during a review session, you’ll see my students playing charades and Pictionary. While the casual observer may interpret these games as frivolous fun, they would only be half right.

In fact, using games such as Pictionary, charades, and even Catch Phrase in your classroom could be one of the most innovative and neurologically appropriate learning tools you utilize all year, and also the most fun your kids ever have reviewing.

The Science Behind Game-Based Learning

Games like these require students to engage in what psychologists call “elaborative rehearsal,” a broad term referring to the process whereby the learner establishes a cognitive relationship between novel and existing knowledge in order to establish deeper connections and thus move novel stimuli to long-term memory. Here’s how it works.

Researchers such as Jeffrey D. Wammes at the University of Waterloo and Peggy Van Meter of Penn State have found a robust connection between the use of drawing and learning. Wammes suggests that this is because “drawing improves memory by encouraging a seamless integration of semantic, visual, and motor aspects of a memory trace.” Van Meter echoes the cognitive power of drawing, which “requires non-verbal representation modalities and thus requires cognitive integration.”

Depth of processing: Pictionary and charades require that thing that we all strive for—critical thinking—in a way that is accessible, engaging, and fun.

In the context of playing games like Pictionary or charades, students are prompted with a clue in the form of a term, concept, phenomenon, or theory. As they decide how to get their teammates to guess the clue, they engage in deep processing. Depth of processing refers to the extent to which a stimulus is processed—that is, to what extent is the meaning or importance of a thing processed. In order to participate in the game, they are required to engage in deep processing and to make connections between the essence of the clue and existing knowledge.

Perhaps more important, they have to consider shared existing knowledge of their classmates and ask themselves, “What is the essence of this clue? What can it be broken down to so that I can make it analogous to existing knowledge of my peers?”

For example, while playing Pictionary, a student in my psychology class drew a rudimentary head and face with a speech bubble, drew an arrow to the head, and then crossed out the speech bubble. Their teammates successfully identified the clue as “localization of function,” since they were able to make a connection between their prior knowledge of this research and the drawing on the board.

Cognitive effort and distinctiveness: The above example illustrates another component of elaborative rehearsal, cognitive effort. The student who is acting or drawing must engage in serious cognitive effort. The students who are guessing must also have full cognitive effort, scanning their brains for prior knowledge and making constant connections between that prior knowledge and what they see illustrated or acted out by the student.

These games also create distinctiveness for the experience and information. All these elements of elaborative rehearsal combine to create a review activity that not only is more engaging than your standard learning experience but also leverages what we know about the science of learning, memory, and the power of deep processing to move stimuli into long-term memory.

A Pictionary Example

In my history class, we were reviewing concepts related to the Cold War within a thematic unit on oppression. A student was given the clue “Guatemala intervention” during a game of Pictionary. The student took 10 seconds to think (our allotted “think time”) and then stepped to the whiteboard with a smile on their face. They immediately started drawing a bunch of bananas; then next to that they drew a collection of dollar signs and rudimentary guns with arrows going to their final illustration of what was meant to be Central America. Halfway into this final illustration a student blurted out, “Guatemala intervention!”

Consider the cognitive demands on both the drawing student and their teammates in this situation. The artist needs to consider how they can symbolically represent something as complex as the Guatemala intervention. Their teammates are scanning their brains for knowledge and information that would fit the symbols on the board. They have to consistently ask themselves, “How do these images fit what I know?” Through that process, they are not only rehearsing knowledge about the specific clue but instead scanning their entire breadth of knowledge to find what could possibly fit.

Of course, some students in the room lack prior knowledge that would allow them to make a correct guess. They are relearning this information in an emotionally and intellectually engaging way. This will increase their ability to move this information to long-term memory.

After every clue, we always debrief quickly. If the team got it right, I ask the student, “Why did you draw what you did?” and then will ask the student who guessed correctly, “How did you know it was the Guatemala intervention?”

Sometimes, the clock hits zero and there are no correct guesses. In this case, a student will inevitably blurt out, “You should have drawn bananas! The United Fruit company!” If students are clueless as to what could have been drawn as a clue, I review the event, phenomenon, or concept and we brainstorm how it could be represented metaphorically or symbolically.

A review session is only as good as its impact on student learning and understanding. By requiring students to represent ideas, concepts, theories, and phenomena symbolically as well as metaphorically, we require them to engage in elaborative rehearsal and deep learning. We also know that information is more readily remembered when it is linked with emotion, and I can assure you that the games do get emotional in the best way possible.

So if you want to infuse your lessons with deep cognitive processing, engagement, and fun, put down those review guides and pick up a Pictionary pen!

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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