An Approach to Learning Games for Lower-Division Courses

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

The past year has seen a growing trend in Web-based learning games that are custom-built to address a specific learning need and in this way improve students' academic performance. Examples include Roger Travis' "practomime" exercises for his classics students at the University of Connecticut and this month's Chemical Mahjong Tournament at Stetson University.

We interviewed William (Tandy) Grubbs, a professor in Stetson University's department of chemistry and the co-creator of Mahjong Chem, to find out what other institutions can learn from the approach he took to developing a learning game for a lower-division undergraduate course.

AI:  Tandy, in creating this learning game, what were your goals? What specific learning challenges are you hoping the game will address?

Grubbs: I've had a long interest in creating open access, Web-based materials that will promote learning. A couple of years ago, I decided to focus on the development of materials that would promote learning at the introductory chemistry level. The AT&T Foundation generously supported this project with a $50K grant to Stetson University (awarded in early 2009). I know that there has been growing interest in using "gaming" to improve STEM learning; Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign includes a national effort to design STEM themed video games.

I wanted to do something along these lines, and early this year I happened upon the idea of chemical mahjong. In my mind, it is the perfect mnemonic device for reinforcing much of the material that is encountered early in chemistry. Solitaire mahjong is such an incredibly addictive game; it is frightening to think back and wonder how many hours of my life were spent in front of a computer, clearing classic mahjong tiles. Turning that appeal into a powerful learning motivator seemed an obvious move.

Mahjong Chemistry
Mahjong Chemistry.

The approach would work in essentially any field where students are asked to associated two concepts; mahjong tile sets could be designed that have students match English and Spanish words, states and capitals, presidents and significant historical events, and so forth.

As I'm sure you are aware, there are several levels of learning.  But regardless of discipline, learning often begins with rote memorization of basic concepts and vocabulary. This information is then later combined and assimilated in various ways by the student when we prompt them to carry out more complex problem solving. The mahjong game is a wonderful medium for that early stage of learning. We don't tend to think of "rote memorization" as a sexy learning strategy.  But it is nonetheless vital -- you can't be effective later if you don't absorb this early content.

AI: How are you tracking the impact of the game on student learning?

Grubbs: I've already seen improved performance on the latest exam with regard to students being able to correctly assign oxidation numbers to atoms in compounds -- no doubt because I strongly encourage students to play the game weeks in advance of this exam. Of course, that is only anecdotal. Luckily, we are in a position to do a more scientific study. For many years, we've been giving an American Chemical Society standardized exam at the conclusion of this course. This exam counts as the final and is worth 25% of their grade, so students take it very seriously. Since we have student performance data over a large number of years, we could go back into these exams and pull questions that involve concepts reinforced by the game (such as assigning oxidation number, solubility rules, electronic configurations). Hopefully we will see a statistically significant up-click in performance on those questions. However, we would need a few years' worth of data to make a statistically convincing case.

Like most institutions, our general chemistry ranks have a larger number of students who need general chemistry, but who are not necessarily majoring in the area (pre-med, biology, and other natural science majors). To encourage engagement, we even planned a formal event around the game. Stetson hosted a Chemical Mahjong Tournament, in which any student who was currently enrolled in general chemistry was encouraged to compete. The student who cleared the Oxidation game board the quickest won an iPad provided by an anonymous donor. The tournament promotes chemistry and our program. Students come away realizing that being engaged in chemistry-sponsored activities can be fun. Hopefully events such as this one will improve enrollment and retention in our program.

Mahjong Chemistry Tournament
Stetson University students Andrew Horn and Nicole Rivera compete in the Chemical Mahjong Tournament at the Stetson Science Center on Oct. 12.

AI: What costs were involved in creating the game?

Grubbs: The costs were essentially all labor. I was able to design the tile sets and the background image myself, in-house. You will need an extremely talented computer programmer to pull off an online game that has a really good look and feel. In the real marketplace, programmers that have this talent command a high salary. I was lucky, and found Travis Cossairt, a programmer who works in nearby Orlando at EA Games. EA is one of the largest computer gaming companies in the world. I learned that Travis is motivated by a love of programming and gaming; he did this entire game for a rock-bottom contract price, paid from the AT&T Foundation grant.

I also took a small stipend this summer for time spent developing the game. Travis and I had a real chemistry going, and were able to put the game together from scratch in about five weeks. There were a few other minor costs, such as purchasing a domain name ( The total cost was under $4,000.

AI: When considering costs and logistics, what types of opportunities do you think other educators need to be looking for? What recommendations would you make to your peers?

Grubbs: In talking with my colleagues, I've learned that there is no shortage of good ideas about how one might use the internet as a learning tool, but these ideas typically don't get developed because most of these same colleagues do not have the programming and/or Web development skills that would be needed. We were able to overcome that hurdle by partnering with someone with a strong computer science (CS) background. Here's what I recommend:

  • Many academic institutions have a solid CS program. Getting CS students and faculty to partner with their natural and physical science colleagues would catalyze the development of new games and other Web-based resources.
  • Make your applications available for free, and don't litter the Web page with too much advertising. It is important to give credit where it is due, and even promote your institution and donors. But too much advertising on a Web page can be a real distraction; reaching and engaging students needs to remain your first objective.
  • Consider how you will promote the learning game. If you build it, they will not necessarily come. You can accomplish promotion informally (by encouraging your students to use the application and by sending email to your colleagues) or through social media. You can leverage your institution's media relations office to send out a press release. The key is to arrive early at a plan for promotion.

AI: Where are there other opportunities to really push the learning "envelope" by designing learning games?

Grubbs: One of the real buzzes in educational game design is whether we can design games that encourage much higher levels of learning. Wouldn't it be wonderful to design a scientific game that worked much like the popular computer game Myst -- where students would be required to explore some world, discover scientifically relevant clues, and assimilate that information in a way that allows them to advance to the next level (or win the game)? I'd love to take on a project like that, but realize that it would be an enormous undertaking in comparison to the Mahjong Chem project. In addition to a talented computer science collaborator, we'd also need a digital arts commitment.