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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

How to Keep Kids Engaged in School—With Games

I teach a journalism class at NYU to high school students via Zoom.

When I first set up my course, I planned on offering short lectures and discussions on various editorial elements (the structure of an article, using credible resources, interviewing techniques), similar to the way I teach my in-person and remote classes for adults at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. But having a tween daughter, I know how tough it is to keep kids’ attention. I had to step up my game to keep Gen Z engaged and challenged. My research showed that interactivity, competition, and the rewards of gaming were the best way to help teens with problem solving. I added gamification to my arsenal of teaching tools, defined as “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.

Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center, explains why gamification works. “PowerPoints, lectures, and even traditional Zoom breakout rooms are dry methods of sharing information and stimulating participation. Teens are neurologically wired to be receptive to learning if we can provide it to them through interactive channels they are most familiar with, such as games. When behavior that uses critical thinking is rewarded, it increases students’ learning.”


“Research shows that gamification increases their motivation, and it has them be part of a team,” says Dr. Monica B. Glina, director of faculty development at NYU.  “This is important for high school students who developmentally are interested in exploring their peer relationships.”

Catherine Pearlman, a Southern California–based therapist, says the mental-physical connection of gaming helps students learn. “Teens are used to using multiple devices at the same time. Gamification addresses their need to have their minds and hands active. So when you make a mistake in a game, you might lose a point, but you get to keep playing, so you learn from your mistakes and it’s OK to make them.”

Carley Doktorski, an upcoming NYU student in the College of Arts and Science planning to major in journalism, took my class recently. 

“I was so nervous I didn’t sleep the night before class started. But it was such a great experience. Right away it was more interactive than five days of straight lecturing, and going through that process helps us to learn about the real industry of publishing.”

Here are a few of the teaching tools and tactics I use and why they work.

Pre-Class Polling

For my classes, I start by giving the teens a challenge: I assign them reading to do before the class, which I then test them on using the polling feature on Zoom or Polleverywhere.com to assess what they know and what they need to work on. After that, we discuss the materials and I answer their questions. 

Dr. Glina says, “Polling is a great way to check in with students to see where they are in their understanding, diagnose what they know before you teach it to them, introduce a new topic, or spark discussion.”

Quizzes Get Leadership on Board 

As I’ve progressed with gamification in my courses, I’ve started creating quizzes on the materials I teach using sites such as Kahoot, eQuizShow, and Muzzylane. The students like it because they can compete with their classmates to rank higher on the leaderboard.  

Dr. Glina says, “You can use these sites to create a game where students use the answers to problems related to the lesson to advance them through scenarios (for example on how to build each part of an op-ed). The key is to set it up so that if you get the right answer, you have the key to the next scenario. ” 

Scavenger Hunts for Sources

I create scavenger hunts for my classes, where I put the teens into teams via Zoom breakout rooms and give them a time frame (10 to 15 minutes) to search online for sources like research or experts to use for their assignments to write articles and op-eds. 

“Doing the scavenger hunt forced me to dig deeper to find a credible expert for my article to show you and the class, and I was thrilled when he later answered my email,” says Doktorski. 

Dr. Glina is a big fan of scavenger hunts using the syllabus. “I ask students, in pairs or working alone,  to create questions around a syllabus—a document that’s important but rarely gets looked at twice—and I assign points to the answers, so they have to go into the syllabus to find the answers. This helps showcase what they do and don’t understand and highlights information that is vital for your students to know.”

Mini Lectures and Videos

I also share videos that I have created with my students about specific journalism topics, like how to interview and find experts or write an op-ed. The videos are short (two to three minutes), and after showing them, I ask the students for their opinions and questions and thoughts. I combine the videos with mini lectures

“The days of lecturing for an hour are over,” says Dr. Glina. The key is to use mini lectures between the sweet spot of six and 13 minutes.

After the mini lesson portion and questions, I either break the students into groups so they can work on their assignments together or give them time to do individual tasks related to their project.

Going on Virtual Field Trips

I try to bring a real-world application to the classes I teach teens. So I often tape Zoom calls with editors interested in publishing teens and share them with my students. I also take students on a journey via YouTube or the internet.

I take them to a location like the newsroom at CNN, a virtual book fair, or a tour of the Annenberg Media Center. Dr. Glina suggests varying your venues depending on what you are teaching, which can include viewing ad campaigns or a video on how the NYC Javits Center in NYC was reinvented for the pandemic. 

Breaking Social Barriers

There are huge social benefits to gamification for learning for high school students. 

“Teens are dealing with a lot. Their friends group is changing, and they are trying on new personality traits,” says Pearlman. “When teens become part of a team in games, kids who wouldn’t socialize before are now on the same team, and it can break down social barriers. In traditional learning, the kids who are more verbal, social, and outspoken usually are more successful. But you change the equation when the quieter, less social kids are observant in games and can shine because of those skills.”

Case in point: Doktorski says she isn’t the type to raise her hand unless called upon, so she really enjoyed the team-focused exercises. “I loved the breakout rooms. There is this idea that girls in the same room will tear each other to shreds, but it was empowering and made me feel confident that people supported my ideas.”

“Hands-on learning fosters creativity,” says Hinduja.  “When teens are gaming, it’s empowering. It gets them to believe they have autonomy and the power to make things happen, instead of feeling stuck. It shows teens that if they put in the work to level up or meet the challenge, they will be rewarded.”

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