Friday, February 4, 2011

Classroom Phone-a-Friend

What happens when an instructor calls on a student to answer a question in class and receives nothing but a blank stare - or worse, a look of panic? I've experienced that tension more than once in my years at SJSU, and I've found that gamification can help transform those moments into opportunities.

No doubt, gamification may sound like nothing more than yet another buzzword churning its way through some academic circles. Nonetheless I'm exploring ways to implement this idea into my teaching, especially in moments of anxiety. One technique: Phone-a-Friend.

The idea's pretty simple. When I call on a student to answer an impromptu question, I allow some time for percolation and try to offer supportive nonverbals. A little tension in this moment is OK, but I'm not trying to freak folks out. If the student tries to pass with a limp "I don't know," I stay with her/him, encouraging a bit more time and reflection on the question. If, however, the student starts to sweat I sometimes offer an alternative: "Would you like to phone a friend?"

The phrase, as you know, comes from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The reference is no longer contemporary, but the phrase has nonetheless sunk into the broader culture. Most folks know what it means. Still, I found it useful to offer some clarification the first time. "You can ask anyone in this class for the answer," I say, "Then you can confirm whether you agree or disagree."

The first time I do "Phone-a-Friend," students invariably ask their most proximate neighbors. They're a little unsure of the game and want to get it over with. But they catch on before long, and eventually they start to use the technique more strategically. "Why ask this person, when I can ask that one across the room?" Their choices reflect many different motivations. Yet the result is generally a richer sense of community. Best of all, students discover more value in paying attention; questions could come from anyone.

Phone-a-Friend is initially about stress-reduction. When feeling "called out," students can transform anxiety into power. They can call on someone else, practicing a dual role of student and instructor. Ultimately, though, Phone-a-Friend is about adding a bit of playfulness to classroom learning. From this perspective gamification leverages a recognizable and pleasurable process to encourage attitudes and behaviors that may be otherwise difficult to habitualize. From my admittedly anecdotal experience, Phone-a-Friend represents one way in which gamification can produce meaningful results.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I use a lot of gamification in my classes, although I think it is a normal part of being a middle school teacher---I try to make everything I do as enjoyable as possible, since I believe that making students enjoy school is a part of my job. Along with Phone-A-Friend (and my students have pretty much the same reaction Andy describes), I also use the Jeopardy theme song for certain responses; a game called Las Vegas to review for tests that involves groups betting on how much they know about a subject; "cartoon notes" that use word play and images to aid retention; and Good Work tickets students can earn for answering in class...with a weekly drawing for a small prize (eraser, pencil, sticker, etc.) Some say they are silly and should not have a place in a classroom---I have even been accused of being "too elementary"---but if I cannot help them to enjoy learning now, what hope do we have that they will be interested in learning in the future?