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Motivating Learners through Stories and Play

By Annika Wolff , Paul Mulholland

From a very early age, children learn through playful interaction with the world around them. As soon as they begin to speak, they are told stories and taught how to construct narratives of their own. Soon, playtime becomes more structured in the form of games with formal rules, turn-taking, and often collaboration. In these early years, games and stories are seen as an integral part of day-to-day life; a vital way for children to expand their knowledge of the world around them and learn how to interact with others. As they get older, the word “game” has connotations of fun and frivolity, which can be seen to be at odds with the seriousness of the curriculum and the importance of exams. Similarly, while storytelling still forms an important part of the “creative subjects,” it is commonly lost from subjects such as science, geography, and history, where it could still be a useful learning tool. The effect of this loss of playfulness can be a decreased motivation for engaging with the learning materials.

With this in mind, is there a way to take the aspects of games and stories that make them engaging and embed these into learning scenarios, without making the learning seem frivolous and less important? What are the aspects that it is useful to look at? Games and stories certainly have some common aspects. As an example, they both have a clearly defined structure within which things happen, whilst allowing sufficient variation to keep things interesting, followed by a definite ending, or goal.  Within the game or the story there is conflict, events, and decisions that may lead to success or failure. This uncertainty engages the user and keeps them motivated to find out what happens in the end. Games and stories require active involvement from the player or reader. Within a narrative, a reader will speculate on the intentions of the characters, relate events back to their personal experience, and make guesses as to what they think will, or should, happen as the story progresses. A game has the possibility to motivate a player to do the same task over and over again, but each time a bit better than before. Continuous feedback is key to this— when the player can easily gauge their own progress, their desire to do better increases.

With just these few pointers, it appears that there are indeed both opportunities and reasons to embed motivational aspects of games and stories into learning activities.

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