Posted in education, Games

On why students need to work harder

I know that young people appear to be facing an unprecedented level of challenge today, and to suggest that they should ‘work harder’ may seem… well… idiotic.

But I believe that one of the most significant challenges that students face, is not being challenged enough.

I’ll return to the game analogy that I’m using in this blog series:

Games are not fun because they are easy.  Games are fun because they are hard.

We are only engaged fully, deeply, meaningfully, if we are challenged.

Easy games are boring games.

That’s why the featured image for this post is from ‘This War of Mine’ – a hard game.

I have recently completed a full play-through.  It was my fourth attempt.  My characters kept dying.  ‘This War of Mine’ is not easy.  The fact that it took me four attempts to approximate a ‘successful’ game did not put me off – it made me determined, interested and engaged.

Sometimes we get so caught up in managerial concerns about: retaining our student numbers, getting good student feedback for high scores and a better position in the leaderboard, and getting the students to pass the exams… that we forget the far more important thing of whether or not we have actually educated anyone well.

This is the fault of a broken system – not of the educators who are forced to work with it.

And the thing is, when our eyes are fixed towards metrics like these we end up asking the wrong questions.

We worry over student feedback to such an extent that we begin to believe asking students to work hard is asking for poor feedback.  We worry that if we fail a student who is, well… failing – then we’ll have to fail so many students that our retention will be too low.  We worry that if we teach for a love of learning, we won’t have taught them how to pass an exam.

Metrics like these are killing education.

And prioritising these things leads us to remove those elements that will actually instill a love of learning: challenge and value.

If we don’t expect much from the students – if things are too easy – then there is no challenge.  A lack of challenge is boring.

And if there is no challenge and it is also possible to pass despite low attendance, and poor performance – then why should anyone value the course?

I teach a class about genre writing.  It is an elective class – meaning that students from a variety of degrees might opt to take it.  Because of this – I cannot expect the same level  of commitment to my class as these same students will be giving to their core degree classes.

At least that’s what I was told.  And for a while I actually believed it.  The class reading for this module used to be one chapter from four texts – four chapters in total.  This is nothing.

Without fail, about 20% of the class would do the reading.  The other 80% would not.

This was infuriating.  And because I could not count on them to complete the reading, whether they had done so or not gradually became less and less important.

I had so many things for them to do in the event that the reading had not been completed, that the material they were meant to be learning from became irrelevant.

And then I read Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken:


When I read about the idea of fun arising from challenge – I felt that familiar feeling you get when something makes complete sense to you.

And I decided to put it to the test with my genre writing class.

I increased the reading.  The students four chapters in total to one chapter from twelve texts and four short stories.

They also had to make notes on their reading.  I made it so that the following class was entirely dependent upon whether they had completed the reading.  They would talk about it in small groups and feedback their key points to everyone.  I would draw from these to generate writing exercises, enabling them to have a go at the techniques they’d been discussing.  I really love this aspect because it essentially rewards students for their hard work by giving them some more hard work.  And they do see it as a reward.

I did all of this because I believed that McGonigal was right.  That no one values something that you have not given value to.  That a lack of challenge meant boredom and disengagement and that increasing the challenge would increase engagement.

I was right.

And now at least 80% of the class complete the reading.

This is not an exaggeration.

Two things were particularly important in this change:

  1. Increasing the challenge by increasing the workload actively engaged the students more;
  2. By making the following week’s class dependent upon their work – I gave their actions impact and value.

So – they were asked to work harder, but this work was clearly relevant and had value.

I still remember the first class that depended on whether the students had read the material.

I remember getting there early – and pacing.

I remember worrying over what I would do if they hadn’t read anything.  And I remember how my heart lifted when they had completed the work.

I remember watching them debate the texts with one another.  I remember how engaged and delighted they were.

I remember devising those writing exercises for them in class – I remember the look of concentration on their faces as they bent to their pages; I remember the quiet and my heart beating fast.

I remember feeling exhilarated.

I will never forget that class.

I will never go back to asking less from my students.

And as for feedback?  It is one of the most highly rated modules in my department.

So go on.  Be brave and challenge your students more.  It’s what they’re waiting for, and frankly it’s what they need.  It’s what we all need – to work harder.


I can't believe I'm admitting this after years of disproving so-called 'sightings'. But the fae are real. They're real and they're here and they're going to banish humanity from the planet! Unless we can show them that we will care for the planet... please, help me save the world:

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