Games are a valuable tool the can help embed models, linking the domain of the observed/real to the domain of the unseen/theoretical. They break up a lesson, encourage participation and allow children to let off steam. Most of all, they are fun! But, which games work and which ones are best left in the box?
In April 2020 a group of student teachers shared their experiences, good and bad, in an online chat session hosted by Exeter University. Our discussion focused on games we’d used in our teaching practice. This is a summary of what we shared. I’d like to thank everyone for contributing to the chat, and I hope that we will continue to work together to develop this, and other resources.
Much of the recent research on games and gamification in science education focuses on computer games and simulations. These have gained popularity over the last fifty years as the capability and availability of the technology has increased. These ‘serious’ games have become an area of intense development, research and review. Cheng et al. (2015) and Magnussen (2014) give a good introduction to the field and make links to the wider research on the pedagogical value of games. We didn’t focus on digital games, but if you’re interested in sampling some simulations and ‘serious’ gaming there’s a good list of digital game resources at Common sense education.
ABCD and Yes/No response cards
Students are given cards that they can hold up in answer to quickfire questions. Questions can be ad hoc or part of a multiple choice quiz. It’s a fast and effective formative assessment tool that allows the teacher to see answers from the whole class rather than just one or two students.
[HW] I made a set of cards for my classes. Each child was given three laminated cards: A/B, C/D and a combination card with Yes/True/happy face and No/False/sad face. There are lots of templates available online, but it’s a lot of work to make them. I was astounded by how well they worked – especially with challenging, lower attaining groups. I used them as starter, plenaries, and ad hoc to check for misconceptions and understanding. Some groups were really keen for scores to be kept. I hadn’t envisaged this as competitive game, but I’m always happy to be child-led with this sort of thing – and it allowed me to reward engaged students. Settling them all down afterwards was sometimes a challenge. I used cards rather than whiteboards because there weren’t enough whiteboards to go around and I thought these would be faster and more fun. They were.
Templates for cards, ideas for using them, and a video introduction to the tool at theteachertoolkit.com.
Bingo is a game of chance. It is played on a scorecard traditionally made up of 25 squares containing numbers. A ‘caller’ chooses numbers at random and if you have that number you cross it off. I you get 5 squares in a row, you shout ‘Bingo’ and win. If you get all the numbers you shout ‘House’ (short for Full house).
[HR] Bingo works well with my year 7 & 8s as a plenary (or when I have finished the lesson early), using key terms from todays lesson and incorporating terms from the past few lessons. It helps to identify who has not understood key definitions without the students thinking you are assessing them.
[JC] I also ran a variant of Bingo with a Y10 group in which the answers to calculations were the items in the boxes. It was quite a ‘mathsy’ group and they seemed to really enjoy it. It was also interesting to see some people call bingo early on the basis of incorrect calculations. It was a nice chance to get them to focus on time management vs. accuracy. On the Bingo card were boxes with numbers in them. Those numbers were the answers to physics based calculation questions that were shown to the kids.
[AR] I’ve used keyword bingo a lot with my year 7s and I would read out a definition and they’d tick off the word they had in their bingo grid. Works well with year 10s too when the lesson’s been a bit of long slog.
Check out myfreebingocards.com to make your custom Bingo cards.
Blockbusters is a British television quiz show based upon an American quiz show of the same name. A solo player and a team of two answer trivia questions, clued up with an initial letter of the answer, to complete a path across or down a game board of hexagons. The UK version of Blockbusters was first broadcast on 29 August 1983. Bob Holness was the original, and for many fans the ONLY presenter.
[DM] I liked playing blockbusters, mainly before it was brought back to TV and could frown at students who were not alive for it first time around. You need to remember to work out the questions or not forget to print them out! I found I had to work on curbing students’ enthusiasm to ensure they played properly, or they would just shout out ‘central tendency bias’ before even asking for ‘CTB please Bob.’
[FT] I did blockbusters with my triple biology class in our last lesson! It went so well, they loved it. I showed them an old clip of it, and they then called me ‘Bob’ for the rest of the lesson…
The Centre for Enhanced Learning Through Technology have produced an adaptable, interactive Blockbuster PowerPoint template. There is also a template on TES.com by ‘dannynic‘.
There are so many science learning card games available that they need their own post, and that will have to wait for now. The biggest problem with them is cost (if you buy the retail versions) and time (if you download templates). Take Periodic Table of Elements Top Trumps for example. What’s not to like about that? Well, a price of £6 a set makes it an expensive resource.
[KR] I made a card game for year 10s on the reactivity series, you split the metals so each player has 10, then turn over the non-metal cards like oxide or chloride. Players try and win the round by using a metal card, most reactive metal wins. The non-metal cards have different points so there’s a bit of strategy (random points 1-5, make sure you have more lower-scoring non-metals and one 5-point one for a more exciting game). It worked well but quickly turned my classroom into a gambling den.
[DM] When your classroom starts to show signs of some worrying gambling in the making it is best to be ready with the line that Harvard teaches Game Theory and MIT teaches poker, so such numeracy skills cannot be bad.
Compound Rummy? It’s Classic Rummy, chemistry style! Instead of making sets and runs with poker-deck cards, use element cards with unpaired valence electrons to combine with other elements and form compounds. One of many science card games available as printed cards from TheGamecrafter.com or as a download from Science FUNdaMENTALS. Other games from the same team include the Metric prefix game, inspired by ‘Spoons’ and a version of chemistry bingo.
The National Cipher Challenge has been run by the University of Southampton Mathematics Department since 2002 and has attracted a wide following. Entrants can take part alone or in teams of any size. To take part you need to register for an account on the website. Whether you are taking part alone or with others you will be asked to either create or join a team which you will use to submit your entries.
[HW] I like using coded messages as part of lessons on DNA to give a focus to how information can be stored and transferred.
Codenames is a 2015 card game for 4–8 players designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by Czech Games. Two teams compete by each having a ‘spymaster’ give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. The other players on the team attempt to guess their team’s words while avoiding the words of the other team. In a variant with 2–3 players, one spymaster gives clues to the other player or players.
[HC] Does the spymaster end up doing all the thinking though? [LG] Not really, when I do it I have a pair of spy masters and a pair of clue givers. So they work in teams of 8. All the pairs do lots of talking. [KS] There is a picture version too, I feel that either one would work.
There’s an example, set up for a maths lesson, on the Better Science blog – ‘Now that is a great question’. There’s also an online version called ‘Codewords’ (presumably to keep the lawyers at bay). There’s a YouTube video on how to play.
Connection quizzes feature a number of questions in a sequence that have some kind of thematic connection. To score points, teams (or individuals) have to answer the questions correctly AND find the connection. This is the idea behind Radio 4’s bafflingly popular ‘Round Britain Quiz.’
[RH] I found this worked well with older pupils: they answer questions on the topic and then have to find a connection between the questions.
Here’s an example of a set of pub quiz connection questions with answers.
A crossword is a word puzzle and word search game that usually takes the form of a square or a rectangular grid of white and black-shaded squares. The game’s goal is to fill the white squares with letters, forming words or phrases, by solving clues, which lead to the answers.
[LG] I once had a year 10 group that weirdly got into cryptic crosswords and they would make up clues for each other on science topics.
[HW] I had a surprising success with ‘reverse’ crosswords I’d create a crossword with an online tool like the one at teacherscorner.net, but only keep the teacher’s answer sheet. I’d then blank out the questions. I’d give it to the children and they’d have to think up the clues. They needed a little training to realise that they should use their books and the textbooks to formulate the clues, but they loved doing it – and created a nice glossary for their word list at the same time.
There are a variety of online crossword creation tools.
In the Dingbats board game (for two or more people), players must solve rebuses: puzzles in which a common word or saying is hidden in a cryptic or otherwise unique arrangement of symbols. A television gameshow on a similar theme, ‘Roy Walkers Catchphrase‘ on ITV was popular for many years.
[MC] Dingbats is a great game for names of psychologists and scientists, and for new vocabulary. You split the name or word up into pictures. So, Sigmund Freud could be pictured in 3 pictures as: a picture of a cigar with ‘ar‘ crossed out underneath, followed by a picture of a day calendar with Monday circled and ‘ay‘ crossed out, and finally a picture of a full English breakfast (fried).
There’s an online Rebus Dingbat creator at pe4learning.com.
Discover and share
Games where one of a pair, or a member of a team has to find some information, memorise it, and then return to the team to share it can take a number of forms. Information can be on sheets around the room or a labelled diagram that’s visible only on the teacher’s computer screen.
[HS] I found that any game where there was an element of competition and movement worked well. I set quite a few activities where one from a pair had to get information from the other side of the room memorise it and take it back to the scribe. Time limited and points for information meant prizes (achievement points). Even the disinterested boys engaged, especially if they were not the ones doing the writing.
Dragons’ Den is a reality television program format in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in the hope of securing investment finance from them.
[KS] I used Dragon’s Den as a consolidation activity. Students liked it and it was a great tool for building confidence and communication skills. I provided templates for how to do a business pitch and the teams had to fill them out and carefully think of the hook they were going to use and what supporting evidence as well as language in their 2-minute pitch. Visual aids, in the form of being able to use the whiteboard, were allowed. Some teams drew graphs to explain how each addition to the greenhouse would affect plant growth (and profit!), others used it for branding purposes. From walking around, and from the pitches, it was clear that students were engaged and on topic. All went well but I’ve learned to be more cautious with Y10. They had to pitch a greenhouse that would maximise plant growth accounting for limiting factors of photosynthesis, etc. One group decided to pitch the greenhouse for growing marijuana and not tomato plants (my mistake of including hydroponics as an option – but it was the lead teacher that put it in the context of growing illicit plants). So yeah… we agreed never to let them work in the same groups again. They were NOT to be trusted.
Should dressing up and roleplay be a routine part of science lessons? Perhaps, but there are other ways of utilising your dressing-up box in the classroom.
[HW] I wanted to embed Mendellian genetics. I made a number of ‘allele’ cards and set up stations around the lab where I had distributed the contents of my dressing-up box – blonde wig, dark wig, curly wig, bandannas, sunglasses, feather boa, etc. Children had to race in pairs around the stations. At each one, they picked allele cards to define their characteristic before donning the appropriate accessory and moving on. If they got it wrong, the watching students would call them back to get it right. The first one to complete a circuit of the lab wearing the correct costume won the round and the times went on the leader board. It was noisy, utterly chaotic and I’m not entirely sure they learnt anything that sitting quietly doing punnet squares wouldn’t have achieved more efficiently. Will definitely do this again!
Any task can be used as an encouragement for collaborative working with a little gamification and reward. But instead of congratulating the fast finishers, encourage them to help their peers?
[CS] If I wanted pupils to finish a task, such as drawing a graph, and some pupils were taking much longer than others I would check the work of pupils who had finished and, if all was correct, they would become a ‘Master/Graphmaster’. The Graphmasters would then go around helping others who needed support. I would then make it a bit competitive between the ‘Masters’ by asking how many people they have each helped and praise them. I found it worked well because pupils were always engaged with the task and enjoyed helping their peers. Normally ended in most of the class stood round a few students (who were generally the most distracting) discussing different ways to help them.
Guess the celebrity
Mystery picture rounds are a familiar feature of television quizzes and panel games. Can they be used in the classroom? Yes.
[EP] I tried a ‘guess the celebrity face’ revision game. I split the class into two teams and they had to answer a question to reveal part of a celebrity’s face. Harder questions revealed more. Both teams had to work out the answer in case the first team answered incorrectly, in which case second team had the chance to steal the point. Points were given depending on difficulty of question and guessing the face correctly. Worked well, with high engagement. However, I underestimated how clued in to celebrities Y10s are and they kept guessing the faces correctly with only half a chin or a nose segment revealed. Definitely worth revisiting, but great care needs taking with the face underneath/size of shape so as not to end the round with one question.
King and queen of the classroom
Time watching television gameshows is never wasted. This, inspired by Jackpot (Jacpot in Welsh) is a fusion of student-led learning and the energy of competition.
[LC] I invented a game with my low attaining, disengaged year 10 class called ‘King or Queen of the Classroom.’ It was a gamble as these were a tricky bunch of young people but it paid off. The students all had to write a question about the topic we have just learned. They spend about 5-10 minutes deciding on their question. They refer back to class notes and they can research it. I vetted the questions before the game started to check they were appropriate (checks on content and language.) One student is chosen at random to sit in the teacher’s chair and whilst sitting there, they are King or Queen of the classroom. They choose who to take a question from and for each question they get correct they stay in the chair and can continue to choose questions from other students. If they get a question wrong, whoever posed that question takes over the chair. The ultimate winner (who gets crowned King or Queen of the classroom) is the one who answers the most questions correctly whilst sitting in the teacher’s chair. My job throughout was simply to facilitate and keep a tally on the whiteboard of how many questions pupils were getting correct. It fuelled some really healthy competition amongst the class and the pupils were actually focussed on the topic. Consequently I have ordered an inflatable crown to use in class from September!
[LG] I had a similar sounding class a few years ago, last lesson on a Friday and they were hard work. By accident I had 10 minutes spare at the end of a lesson so I did a 10 min pub quiz filler activity. They liked it so much they asked for it next week, and every week for 2 years with an accumulating score. I had to introduce random chance questions though so I could try to keep the scores fairly even over the 2 years!
Masters and Learners
Getting students to teach each other can be a real challenge. How do you keep the pace up and ensure that learning is taking place?
[HC] I created an information carousel with 6 poster-style information sheets and laid these out. I then split the class in half, ‘Masters’ and ‘Learners’. The Masters were divided into six teams and each team assigned a station on the carousel. Their mission was to teach the learners, and they needed to work out how to do that using the information on the poster. They got really into the task and started setting up games for the other pupils to learn the posters. While they were doing this, the ‘Learners’ were given their instructions, assigned a station and sent off to be taught by their peers. After each group of Learners have been taught, they become the Masters and the first teams of Masters become Learners. I would assign the new Masters to the poster that they had understood LEAST in the first round. This worked well: rules were clear, rounds were fast, and tasks were repeated so students got better as they progressed around the stations.
Not really a game, but useful in making interactive presentations and quizzes work… PeardDeck adds interactivity to digital slideshows (works with Microsoft and Google Apps) by allowing students to answer questions and submit feedback from any device with a web browser. Find out more at PearDeck.com.
Again, not strictly a game but Plickers can be a fast way of getting and logging student answers, with the advantage that the students do not need connected smart devices or computers. Each student has their own graphic symbol which can be printed on any piece of paper or card (but works well if pasted to the back cover of their workbook). In answer to a question, the students hold up their codes. The orientation of their codes indicates which of four possible answers they have selected. Using a mobile device (phone or tablet) running the Plickers App, the teacher is instantly able to log the students’ answers. Each students scores are logged and stored in an online database. Find out more at plickers.com. There is also a step-by-step tutorial on Youtube.
[HW] I couldn’t use Plickers in my last school because I would have had to use my own camera and that wasn’t allowed in the school, there were also GDPR concerns, but I think these challenges could have been overcome had I been a fulltime member of staff. [LG] Sadly, I found Plickers App kept crashing my phone.
How can you add extra action to a successful quiz. One way is to bring some other skills into the mix. Pong bounce is an example, as is Shooting gallery (which see.)
[CW] I did a game which was a pong toss with a leader board where teams had to ask and answer questions. If they got the answer right they got a point and then had a chance to bounce the ball in a cup for an extra point. Each round was 5 minutes and then we would tally up scores. It gave me a way to see which children new the topics and which were struggling and on which types of questions.
Quiz, quiz, trade
This is a cooperative-learning technique where students review information with other students by asking and answering questions. Each student is given a question/answer card. They pair up and ask each other the questions on their cards. They provide feedback on the answers given, switch cards, and find new partners.
[JT] I have used ‘Quiz, quiz, trade’ on several occasions with year 7s, 8s and 9s (though haven’t tried it with 10s or 11s yet) and it has always worked well. It’s is a great way of getting kids out of their seats for 10 minutes – great when there is a topic that is quite dry or teacher-led. [DM] Did you find yourself repeating the instruction ‘Quiz quiz trade’ a lot? I don’t know why but when there was just chatting going on I always found myself barking ‘Remember you’re quiz quiz trading!’ [JT] It depends on the group, but sometimes I found I’d have to repeat instructions and be on the lookout for students using the game as an opportunity to just hang out. [LC] This is exactly my experience with this game, clusters of mates high-fiving and then talking about football or Tik Tok!
Detailed rules for play and a video at theteachertoolkit.com.
Keeping lessons on-target can be a challenge. Why not add in some target practice?
[MC] I made up a game with my Year 12 Psychologists that I was going to use in my other classes. I split the class into teams and one person from each team shot three sucker ‘bullets’ from a NERF gun at a target. They then got to play for the points they had hit by answering questions on the topic we were learning. Other teams got a chance to steal points if teams got it wrong. I think to use this game in lower years/more difficult classes I would use perhaps a sticky ball or only load 3 ‘bullets’ so there is no opportunity for the person firing to ‘accidentally’ fire at a fellow student.
Successful teams share responsibility for the success of their work and maximise their efficiency by having defined roles. But how can children learn how best to assign tasks and build an understanding of both their preferred role in a team and their areas for improvement?
[KR] I liked doing research tasks with my class, but they had to assign themselves roles based on where they saw themselves in the group: researcher, editor, presenter or supervisor. I just wanted to see if the brainy, brawny, leader and joker hypothesis worked. they all had to present their findings in front of the class at the end. This worked quite well, sometimes!
Zipgrade is another App that can automate formative assessment and make quizzes and tests easier to mark. It automates printing multiple-choice answer sheets for each student that can then be scanned and logged against a class database using a smart device. Find out more at zipgrade.com.
[HW] I really like the Zipgrade concept, but couldn’t get permission to use it in my last school because of GDPR issues.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion that allowed this resource to be made: [AR] Andre Roberts, [CS] Christopher Short, [CW] Christina Wickman, [DM] Darren Moore (staff), [EP] Emma Park, [FT] Fiona Tattersall, [HC] Hugh Clark, [HR] Hannah Redwood, [HS] Helen Spencer, [HW] Howie Watkins, [JC] Jonathan Crofts, [JT] James Thomas, [KR] Kerne Rayner, [KS] Kasia Sierzputowska, [LC] Lucy Clemas, [LG] Luke Graham (staff), [MC] Maxine Cowley and [RH] Ruth Hodges.
Cover image, ‘Snakes and ladders’ by Jacqui Brown, reproduced with permission (CC license.)
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not pop over to www.howiewatkins.co.uk for more?
Cheng, M.-T. et al. (2015) The use of serious games in science education: a review of selected empirical research from 2002 to 2013, Journal of Computers in Education, 2, 353-375.
Common sense education (2020) Best science games for students.
Herr, N. (2007) Games for the Science curriculum – Internet resources to accompany The Sourcebook for Teaching Science, San Francisco: John Wiley/Jossey-Bass.
Magnussen, R. (2014) Games in science education: Discussion of the potential and pitfalls of games-based science education, Proceedings of the European Conference on Games-based Learning, 1, 339-345.