Relative Advantage of Game-Based Learning in a Special Education Algebra Classroom

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According to Keeler (2014), digital classroom games fall into three categories: game-based learning, game sheets, and gamification. Game-based learning is the use of games to enhance learning. These often provide simulations to draw the learner in and allow the student to experience an environment. Examples include SimCity, World of Warcraft, MineCraft, and CellCraft. Using these games in the classroom can have many positives such as increasing learner engagement, teaching effective collaboration and problem-solving skills and bringing classrooms into the 21st century with technology. These programs give teachers concrete information on a student’s progress, useful for directing instruction and providing progress information for special education student IEPs. GBL also allows for individualized instruction, something that can be very valuable in a classroom with a wide range of learner abilities. Unfortunately, for me, the drawbacks far outweigh the advantages. I am not a gamer, and these games take a long time for me to figure out well enough to instruct my special education students in their use. Time I don’t have. I also have to admit that my interest level in them is not high enough to make me want to make the time. Games that are drawn-out and complicated tend to lose my students. They get frustrated very easily and will completely shut down if they don’t get it immediately. This is a defense mechanism against feeling stupid. It is much “cooler” to say something is stupid and refuse to try it than it is to admit they don’t understand. It is also difficult for me to find enough time to play these immersive games in my limited class time. I have forty minutes per day to teach common core level algebra to students who have very few of the basic skills. Isolation is another concern. Many of my students lack social skills and have few friends. Will it reinforce this behavior if I use GBL extensively? Gamification is the application of game-based elements to non-game situations, such as awarding badges or levels for work completion (Keeler, 2014). Classcraft is a good example of gamification, as are rewards programs offered by stores such as Starbucks (Isaac, 2015). This reminds me of token economies, and I suspect more educators use this form of GBL without realizing that they are using gaming. I had not made this connection before researching this topic and find it an interesting suggestion. While I have used gamification in the past, I am not currently using it. It does cross my mind periodically, but the amount of work implementation requires seems daunting right now.

I find the last category, pagesheets, the easiest to use. Keeler states that pagesheets fall between GBL and gamification, and allow students to practice concepts learned in class. They are basically gamified worksheets, with students practicing a defined skill with game elements added, such as avatars, sound effects, and storylines (2014). Graphite, Cool Math, Brain Pop and Khan Academy all offer games that fall into this category. These are easy to find and do not require a lot of time to learn or to complete, making them perfect for my students.

As a special education math teacher, I find games can be a challenge to implement successfully. Many of my students are poor readers. They also tend to be hesitant to try anything new without near 1:1 support from their teachers. They are quick to frustrate and give up easily. If something takes too long to understand or master, they will just walk away. And yet, they love to play games. Easy games that they can quickly learn and play successfully. To this end, I use a lot of Keeler’s pagesheets. These allow me to choose a specific skill and let my students play a game to practice it. They need so much repetition and practice to master algebraic concepts, and this is something beyond a basic worksheet that encourages more learning. I will often find a short game to reinforce a skill and attach it to our homework in Google Classroom. Even if they don’t do the homework, many are willing to play the game, allowing me to get something out of them outside of the classroom. And the relative advantage of that is very, very high.


Isaacs, S. (2015, January 15). The difference between gamification and game-based learning. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Keeler, A. (2014). Beyond the worksheet: Playsheets, GBL, and gamification. Retrieved from Edutopia website:

4 thoughts on “Relative Advantage of Game-Based Learning in a Special Education Algebra Classroom

    Cindy Goodwill said:
    March 11, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Dear Lisa,

    I enjoyed hearing how you have used “play sheets” to motivate your students. From your description it seems that the play sheets are just the right fit for your students, your classroom, and your teaching style. I’m glad you’ve found something that works in this regard, because there is a lot of evidence out there that kids really do respond to games in the classroom.

    You mentioned that gamification would be a lot of work to implement. I read about a teacher who turned his class into a Survivor like game (Survivor Algebra, n.d.). This seems like it would be a lot of work, but as the teacher pointed out school is just a game and the grades are the rewards we hand out. The kids are already use to playing the game of school, why not change it up a little bit. The teacher who created the Survivor Algebra class taught in a community college. He reported 75-80% of his students passed the class, when it had been closer to 45% before (Survivor Algebra, n.d.). That’s a huge difference. Of course this is only one case. But, it would be interesting to look into further.

    I always enjoy your blog posts Lisa. Keep up the good work!



    Survivor Algebra. (n.d.). Retrieved from


      lisakmcleod responded:
      March 11, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Thank you Cindy. I always look for your posts too. I love reading another perspective on math. I have seen Survivor Algebra and thought it looked very interesting. I bookmarked it to explore further but between teaching, tutoring and grad school, there are just not enough hours in the day. I always have so many ideas running around in my head. I need to make this one a priority.


        Cindy Goodwill said:
        March 30, 2016 at 5:36 pm

        I know how that is. There is so much I would like to read, but I don’t have the time to do it.


    solo2384 said:
    March 14, 2016 at 12:51 am

    I really enjoyed reading your post! Game based learning is new to me, and I struggle with incorporating it in my high school English classroom. I have many of the same feelings that you do. I am not a gamer at all. I also struggle with finding the right games for my classroom. Your post has struck a chord with me, and I really appreciated your insight. It is also nice to hear from a special education teacher. I teach at-risk readers (mostly inclusion classes), so I truly appreciate your posts.


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