Learning to learn more effectively through play

To be able to understand your own learning process and apply successful learning strategies, you need metacognition. Metacognition is knowledge about how you acquire new knowledge and your ability to use this knowledge in practice. TU/e PhD candidate Eelco Braad has developed new methods to improve metacognition among students, through game-based learning. Today, he will defend his dissertation at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences.

photo Sjoerd Weiland

“I once supervised a bachelor’s student who got really stuck during his final project,” says Braad, who, in addition to his PhD position at TU/e, works as a senior researcher in the research line “digital technology for learning” at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen. “That happens all the time, but what struck me is that he was completely unaware that something was wrong and what exactly that could be. I wondered: how can it be that someone doesn’t develop any intuition at all about their learning process during the course of their studies?”

The knowledge about your own learning process and the ability to effectively apply that knowledge is what we call metacognition. This involves understanding how learning works for you and what strategies help you succeed, as well as being able to apply that knowledge in your behavior and activities in order to learn more effectively. “Some people lack this awareness, but still learn well naturally – in which case there is no problem,” says the PhD candidate. “But if you do run into problems, it’s going to be hard to solve them without metacognition.”

Self-regulated learning

The concept of metacognition emerged in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, the term “self-regulated learning” was introduced, referring to the ability to understand and regulate one’s own learning process. These concepts fit well with the current educational trend where students – as well as secondary school students – are increasingly at the helm of their own learning process. The same principle also underlies Challenge-Based Learning (CBL). Within this educational concept, students are given considerable freedom to determine for themselves what exactly they will be learning and how they will approach it.

Metacognition is essential for successfully regulating one’s own learning process, Braad argues. “We know that students who are aware of the various learning strategies and when to apply them and who possess the necessary skills to do so are more successful.”

Fortunately, you can train metacognition, but students are not always motivated to put in the necessary time and energy. “It requires extra effort and they often simply have no interest,” he says. Something he understands very well, by the way. So the task at hand is to make metacognitive training more appealing, he thought. That is why, as part of his doctoral research, he explored how to help develop metacognition through game-based learning, a method that involves learning through play by means of an educational game – which can be either a traditional board game or a computer game.

PhD in the picture

What is that on the cover of your dissertation?

“This illustration by Andrei Bordeianu represents how nurturing your own thinking abilities can help you grow. There’s this saying: teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. I say: teach someone how to learn – then you’re really talking about life-long learning.”

You’re at a birthday party. How do you explain your research in one sentence?

“I research how people learn and how we can improve the process or make it easier or more fun using technology.”

How do you blow off steam outside of your research?

“I make music: playing guitar, bass, drums. Currently as part of We Are The Harvest. Always with a DIY mentality! The band’s self-produced record will be out on vinyl soon. And we perform live every now and then, like at Stroomhuis in Eindhoven recently.”

How does your research contribute to society?

“In the Netherlands, you choose a specific educational direction fairly early on, even though the world is changing rapidly, which means that training for fixed professions is no longer sufficient. On top of that, we’re facing structural labor shortages; so people will have to continue learning more often and for longer periods of time. Therefore, understanding how to do that most effectively is more urgent than ever.”

What is your next step?

“The role of technology in learning is all too often viewed from the perspective of technology: ‘which VR goggles or computer can we bring into the classroom next?’. I want to help shift the focus so that the question is increasingly asked the other way around: what issues in education can we help solve using technology? The next step is to engage students, lecturers and researchers in this approach to start putting it into practice.”

Less stressed

Braad has designed a digital tool – based on game-based learning – that allows you to formulate and reflect on different learning strategies and learning objectives and thereby improve your metacognition. Game design theory dictates that for game-based learning, the learning content should be well integrated with the game design. Going against the grain, Braad did the exact opposite; he completely separated the educational and gaming elements.

“If you play the game for some time, you earn credits that you can use to unlock new learning strategies for the other part,” he explains. “And if you keep track of your learning objectives and activities in the learning part, you earn extra credits to play the game.” The game was tested by students from Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen and the University of Groningen. Some students did not find the game useful at all, but almost half of them thought it was fun and it motivated them to apply new learning strategies.

In addition, the tool had another unexpected positive effect. Braad: “One of the participants came to see me and said: I get less stressed about my studies because if I run into something, I know there is a place where I can reflect on it and that brings me peace of mind. I thought that was a very nice result that I hadn’t even anticipated.”

Design rules

Independent of this tool, he also developed a theoretical framework with all the design knowledge he acquired during the research process. These design rules cover information such as: what to consider when designing a tool and what features to include? This way, he contributes to further development of knowledge in the field of game-based metacognitive training.

After all, sharing knowledge is important, because the only way to move forward is together. “For example, within the Selflex consortium, we’re looking at how to better embed self-regulated learning in higher education,” says Braad. One way to do this is through game-based learning – as he did in his research – but there are other strategies and tools in the same vein.

The tool Braad designed is, in fact, only a prototype. Anyone interested can explore it, but in order to truly implement it as a directly applicable tool for training metacognition, the game needs further development. “And we’re definitely going to work on that,” Braad assures.

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