Fun and Games: designing a playful approach to writing a postgraduate thesis

Studies have shown that the use of games in Higher Education can improve the ability to learn new skills and can facilitate deep learning by increasing the enjoyment experienced by students. This project draws on the expertise in Open University (OU) design to employ such gamified approaches in teaching and sought to apply them to helping students taking the first module in the MA in Art History (A843) with devising a sound end-of-term essay topic. The aim was to make the difficult task of selecting a suitable research question and topic for this essay a fun and enjoyable activity, thus lessening the stress and anxiety students often experience at this stage of their course.  

The project is a collaboration between Art History and Design – disciplines that, in the OU, sit respectively in the faculties of Arts & Social Science and STEM. When inspiration struck, I was chair of the first year of the MA in Art History and was thinking about how to support student success in the end-of-year-assignment. Not only is this the first long essay students get to write on the MA, but also the first time they are asked to develop their own research question and ways to approach it. Experience shows that a judicious choice of topic is key to doing well in the assignment, and I was wondering how to support students in making good choices at this pivotal juncture in the course. At the same time, as editor of the special issue of Art History and Design in Dialogue: Abutments and Confluences, I was working ‘across the aisle’ so to speak between Art History and Design. As I edited the contribution my Design colleague Georgina Holden had co-authored with Prof. emeritus Nigel Cross, I became intrigued with the use of gamified approaches to teaching in Design that were mentioned in the article. These approaches were exemplified by a game called PIG (short for Problem Identification Game) that was visualised, yes, you guessed it, in the form of a pig!  


It seemed such fun and also very effective! This got me thinking about how one might be able to adapt this approach for the end of year essay on the MA, as finding the right essay topic was, after all, a problem to be solved. Georgina was happy to get involved in a project that would seek to develop ways to adapt the gamified strategies that were commonly used as teaching aids in Design for use in the Humanities. I was immensely grateful to be able to draw on Georgina’s expertise in constructing games and also for the support in the development of the game by Pamela Bracewell-Homer and Joel Robinson, Associate Lecturers with many years of teaching experience on the MA.     

The first step was to assemble the project development team and to get the requisite funding in place. Then we engaged in lots of brainstorming, which was great fun. But we soon realised that the task at hand was more onerous than anticipated, and that translating the game expertise from Design to the Humanities required heavier lifting than expected. In fact, we had to develop a new hybrid format for a gamified approach to revision as a foundation for broaching the question of the essay topic.  

To achieve this, we developed a set of resources that used playful exploration to enable students to understand their individual learning styles as they approached their end of module assessment (EMA). This material comprised a 60 page, multicoloured ‘guidebook’ with space for responses and reflections, a set of cards for use at various points as the students worked through the booklet, two dice for a game around argumentation, and stickers for the successful completion of sections of the guide book. The approach was based on the idea of conquering ‘Mount EMA’ (i. e. writing a successful EMA) and introduced different aspects of the work needed for ‘reaching the mountain top’ as stages of preparation. It led students systematically through a series of steps to identify and analyse sources and construct a coherent argument while offering exercises to test their skills as well as checklists to assess their understanding and preparedness. These exercises were likened to gathering the right gear, packing one’s backpack, selecting a route up the mountain and ensuring readiness for the ‘climb’ with metaphorical climbing equipment associated with respective tasks and preparation stages.  



Overall, applying playful approaches to assessment tasks in Art History proved to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated. After a period of intense brainstorming it became clear that the nature of the ‘problem’ (finding a productive essay topic) is quite different to those addressed in Design, which refer to life situations and contexts and do not require players to draw on specific, course-related academic approaches and skills. This had not been anticipated and required extensive developmental work as well as the elaboration of a new approach. The issue of ‘translation’ therefore took time and required extensive discussion and careful consideration. We realised that there was a need for guidance and playfulness to enable students to realise their goals, and that the game would need to be combined with the provision of resources for revision as well as references to skills, concepts and theoretical approaches introduced throughout the course. These insights necessitated a change in our strategy. We resolved to present the skills and approaches needed in a playful way to bring light-heartedness to their process and allow greater freedom to expand beyond familiar realms of thought. A central element here was a game that threw up chance combinations of materials they had pre-identified as themes and resources they wanted to draw on which had been devised to aid this process, invite experimentation and open up unexpected vistas. We also added elements inviting self-awareness about students’ learning styles as an essential ingredient to writing a successful essay. 

In terms of outcomes we learnt that the gamified approach we developed seemed to particularly benefit the weaker students in the cohort, which we were very pleased about. And while the feedback was positive overall, it revealed that there was potential for the game-cum-guidebook to be more effective still if the game was introduced earlier in the course and some tweaks were made to its overall remit. It also transpired that students in the Humanities are not used to game-based approaches to learning and needed some ‘warming up time’ to engage, which will need to be factored into the overall approach and will be addressed in the next test phase. Last but not least, there will also be a board to go with the cards and the tasks specified in the guidebook this time round!  

Overall, the aim is to fully implement this gamified approach to writing the final year essay in the upcoming remake of the module and, once improved and road-tested further, to make the format available to colleagues throughout the Humanities who might be interested in diversifying their approaches to teaching. 


Renate Dohmen, Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art 

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