We all know that increasing engagement and providing real-life context in lectures are important ways of helping students to become more enthusiastic and understand the lecture material better.  There are many different ways of doing this - and it's fairly easy in a small class - but it's a bit trickier with larger groups.  I teach a number of units in biology in which I have used games as a way of illustrating the lecture concepts and that are the starting place for discussion.  Games are fun on their own, but when combined with the discussion and contextualisation they are a very powerful teaching tool that anybody can use.  'The fishing game' is one I use in a third year Marine Biology unit.  I modified it from a simple activity for school kids, that I developed further to incorporate specific scenarios of fisheries activity and their effects on sustainability.  

Games can improve educational outcomes. Image credit - Flickr Glamhag
I developed the fishing game to illustrate the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons in the context of modern fisheries. In this game we explore the concept that a rational decision by all parties results in the detriment of the shared resource. The Tragedy of the Commons is a term coined in an important scientific paper in the 1950’s that describes how use of a shared resource that no party ‘owns’ (global fish stocks in my example) leads to a rational decision to overexploit it, because the benefit of the increased fisheries catch is gained solely by the individual doing the overexploiting, but the loss (reduced sustainability) is shared by all parties that use the resource. 

The ‘Tragedy’ is that when all parties come to the same rational decision, the resource collapses and everybody loses. This is precisely the situation with modern fisheries and so, informed by experiential learning principles, I designed the game with a role-play where the students are the fishers and chocolate frogs are the fish. The fish have a minimum sustainable population size and the fishers have a minimum economically viable catch. 

Under several different scenarios (small-scale subsistence fishery, unregulated commercial fisheries, regulated fisheries and privatised fisheries), students ‘catch’ fish without regard for the success or otherwise of their classmates. Their motivation is that they get to keep the ‘fish’ – chocolate is a great incentive – and after each round we assess the total catch and the sustainability of the fish. 

We graph the results in and have extensive discussion about the consequences and motivations for their actions. Without regulation or ownership of the shared resource, students always behave in a rationally selfish manner and the fishery collapses within a few rounds of the game. During the game the students enthusiastically adopt their roles and there is genuine outrage when they feel that their competitors are taking selfish actions. 

Monash University Science Student undertaking role plays in lectures. Photo credit RH Brookes

I encourage them to express their thoughts as they play and it is always useful to hear the intellectual process they go through and how they put this into the context of wanting to ensure that they don’t ‘miss out on what remains’ when it becomes clear that the fish stocks are overexploited. They perfectly articulate the fundamental problem of rational selfishness in fisheries and can connect this behaviour with the outcome that the game is designed to illustrate. 

Their ability to transfer the thought process from ‘I did this because…’ to ‘Fisheries do this because…’ shows that they understand the lesson of the Tragedy of the Commons, and recognise that it is difficult to learn from it by changing their behaviour when there are other players involved. 

Students demonstrate higher-order thinking by being able to clearly explain how they behave a certain way even when they know what negative impact it will have, because during the game they continually assess the actions of others, forecast likely consequences, re-evaluate their own actions and adjust their behaviour accordingly. 

Students always enjoy this game and its use as an example to answer exam questions on the impact of fisheries also demonstrates its effectiveness in giving real-life context to the material. I know this because students who explain their answer to the exam question by drawing upon their experience of the fishing game usually answer the question very well, but those who don’t draw on the game in their explanation tend to struggle. 

The energetic benefits of hopping are easily demonstrated by students. Photo credit kigu.me
I use a number of other activities and games in different units to similarly contextualise difficult material. For example, in Biology of Australian Vertebrates, I have students wear heart rate monitors and some jump up and down on exercise trampolines (the ‘kangaroos’), while others jump up and down on the floor (the ‘humans’), to illustrate the advantage given by elastic energy storage in the leg tendons of kangaroos in the work that those animals have to do while hopping. The sweaty faces of the ‘humans’ versus the smug expression of the ‘kangaroos’ perfectly illustrates the concept and stimulates discussion about the ecological advantage of this form of locomotion in the food-poor Australian environment.

So, while games may not be possible in every situation, with a bit of imagination and some chocolate it's possible to get even less enthusiastic students involved and actively learning.

Associate Professor Richard Reina is the Director of Education in the School of Biological Sciences.  He is a marine biologist with primary research focus on the ecophysiological responses of marine vertebrates such as sharks, turtles and penguins to environmental and human-mediated impacts.  He strongly believes in creative teaching informed by research and has won numerous faculty, university and national teaching awards.