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: