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One of trepidations that students carry into introductory STEM courses is that the learning will be hard, perhaps too hard.  Since some believe they are not good at math or computers, their expectation of difficulties is a stereotype threat.  However, the difficulty of learning is a reality for many.  The difficulty is often meant to be there.

That learning should be hard is certainly an opinion of some faculty.  Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in a book “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” analyze a case of alleged academic misconduct at Ryerson University.  A student in an engineering program administered a Facebook study group, where students were collaborating.  The student was charged with 148 counts of cheating, one for each student associated with the Facebook group.  Setting aside the discussion of the academic integrity issue, let’s focus on the faculty expectations.

In essence, therefore, Ryerson’s objections to the Facebook study group, which was nothing more than a digital re-creation of the physical-world study groups that have been around for centuries, were that it made learning easy, allowed students to do whatever they wanted, and as a result threatened academic integrity. In Ryerson’s view, apparently, learning must be both difficult and directed by others to meet the standard for academic rigor. (Thomas & Brown, 2011)

Perhaps this is why active learning, while evidenced in peer reviewed research, often is not allowed in the classroom by faculty.  Faculty lecture, and if it is boring, it is for the good of students.  Teaching should have rigor and learning must be hard, or it borderlines on academic misconduct.

Does suggesting the use of games in the classroom touch a sensitive nerve with faculty, who believe that rigor and integrity means traditional lecturing, painful boredom, and an expectation of difficulty as an academic rite of passage?

Dr. Seymour Papert is a mathematician and one of the early pioneers of Artificial Intelligence. He makes the following comment on the need for difficulty in learning:

My whole career in education has been devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline (Papert, n.d.).

Dr Papert advocates the concept of “hard fun” in teaching and learning (Papert, n.d.).  While rigor and academic integrity are necessary, it is also necessary to arrange the learning into a well designed game, which introduces rigor in an emotionally positive and inviting way.  Learning is fun, because it is hard, but it is fun only when progress is noticed and practice causes an improvement.

These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world (Papert, n.d.).

A recent Scientific American article “Why We Love the Games That Enrage Us Most” connects attitudes toward games with academic activities.  The scaffolding present in games, the opportunity and encouragement to fail, the practice that produces progress, they all can be applied in school.

Instilling competence, however, can be tricky. Hold the player’s hand too much and she disengages out of boredom. Ask too much of her too soon and she quits in frustration. Most hit games, from Candy Crush Saga to Call of Duty, find a balance by easing players up the learning curve with early levels that act as self-guided tutorials for mastering basic moves and controls (Pavlus, 2016).

Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Biology Dr. Craig Nelson is the author of “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor”.  In his article he lists three basic illusions and a more realistic view of the phenomenon (Nelson, 2010).  These illusions are reflected in difficulties of adoption of gamification teaching practices the same as any other alternative approaches to undergraduate teaching.

1. Hard courses weed out weak students.  When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort.

Finding: When students fail it is often due to inappropriate pedagogy .

2. Traditional methods of instruction offer effective ways of teaching content to undergraduates.  Modes that pamper students teach less.

Finding: While lectures teach something, alternative methods teach on average twice as much as traditional lectures (Hake, 1998).

3. Massive grade inflation is a corruption of standards.  Unusually high average grades are the result of faculty giving unjustified grades.

Finding: There exists bad and good grade inflation.  Good inflation happens, when grades measure improved achievement.  University administration’s job is to reward good grade inflation and punish bad grade inflation.

The balance of rigor, academic integrity, and respect for the institution of teaching and learning must be matched with playful learning, which keeps our mind open for exploration and new experiences.  Playfulness does not mean lack of respect.  We recognize games as being important, worth the effort, and sometimes deserving of more integrity than other areas of life.

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

—Bill Shankly on Football.[

Consequently, when playfulness and integrity of playing a good game are introduced into classroom activities, the rigor and academic integrity will only benefit and increase.



Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive engagement methods in introductory mechanics courses. http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/IEM-2b.pdf, accessed on 13 March 2016.

Nelson, C. (2010). Dysfunctional illusions of rigor: Lessons from the scholarship of teaching and learning. In L. B. Nilson & J. E. Miller (Eds.),To improve the academy: Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development, 28(177-192). San Francisco: Josse-Bass. Major sections of this article available at: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1058

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.

Papert, S. (n.d.). Hard Fun. Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://www.papert.org/articles/HardFun.html

Pavlus, J. (2016, March 7). Why We Love the Games That Enrage Us Most. Scientific American. Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-love-the-games-that-enrage-us-most