Updated: May 25
Using game elements to teach students in introductory American Government courses in college and high school social studies classrooms is not a new phenomenon. But in the recent decade, with the rise of the online classroom, gamification has become a buzzword in teaching and learning circles. However, gamification does not necessarily entail using a computer, phone or tablet. In fact, there are plenty of games that can be played in a physical classroom space that can motivate students to learn and practice important concepts of American Government.
This blog will give you 4 examples of how you can “gamify” your American Government course, or apply it to your high school civics, social studies or AP Government course.
The Gerrymandering Game
Teaching about gerrymandering while discussing electoral competitiveness is an excellent way to stimulate critical thinking in students about how Americans implement democracy. The students where I taught seemed to hold a skeptical disposition of politicians and parties, so the subversion of democracy by political actors was not an idea that they had difficulty comprehending. Nor did it take long for them to recall the definition of the spirited and playful term “gerrymandering.”
But understanding the “how” of gerrymandering required a geographical and geometrical calculus that most students were not prepared to grapple with in a social science course. Visualizations of gerrymandered districts work well here, but even better is the application of active learning. The gerrymandering game is a great way to engage students through a cool and unique classroom activity that will prompt students to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the concept.
Classroom time: 5-15 minutes
Materials: Printouts for students, preferably 3 per student but at least 1.
How to play:
After explaining gerrymandering and giving a few real-life examples, give each student three printouts that represents citizens that need to be divided into political districts
Ask students to draw districts three ways. First to benefit Red. Second to benefit Blue. Third in what they see as a fair way.
After they are done, show them a visual of the correct way to do this (note that there might be more than 1 correct way). Students can compare their districts to each other’s to see how they did. Keep in mind that what is important here is not that students learn how to gerrymander but that they understand how it can occur. This will serve as an entrée for discussing possible ways to reform the system using more automated or unbiased methods.
Team Jeopardy Quiz Game
Whenever I gave a midterm or final exam, students would always demand at least a study. But I never felt comfortable just handing out to students a list of terms and concepts and leaving them to their own devices. Many teachers would agree and hold a review session. This is not only in the student’s best interest for getting a passing a grade, but all the evidence about memory spacing shows that retention of materials increases if a refresher of materials occurs some time later after the initial instruction. But review sessions are dull and boring classes both for students and instructors. Good teachers have been gamifying these for a long time, but how best to do this? Get yourself a classic Alex Trebek mustache and have a jeopardy session. Cue the soundtrack!
And here is some great news. If you have a smart classroom, you can create your jeopardy board ahead of time by logging on FOR FREE at jeopardylabs.com.
Create your categories based on your units or topics. Here’s a few broad ones applicable to American Government: “Institutions” “PIGS (parties interest groups Social Movements)” “Know Your Rights” “The Founders” “The Constitution” “Media Matters” or use totally fun and random categories like “Starts with the letter A” “Before and After” “Potpourri”
Don’t forget to create “daily doubles” on your board.
Classroom time: 25-90 minutes
Materials: Prewritten jeopardy questions. A blackboard on online game board. Buzzers [optional]. Mustache.
How to play: Split the class into 2 or 3 teams. You probably do not own a buzzer, so alternate each team getting a chance to pick a category and answer a question. Be sure to keep track of points (maybe offer extra credit points on the exam to the team that wins). Be sure to explain the rules of jeopardy before the class.
Team Mock Trial Game
There are a lot of ways to set up a team mock trial game in your classroom and it is much easier than it sounds. This is especially useful for classes in American Government that heavily focus on Supreme Court cases. The great part about implementing a mock trial game is that not only do students get to apply their knowledge, but they also build public speaking and argumentation skills as well. These “soft skills” are precisely the types of skills that employers seek out in political science majors.
Classroom time: 40-120 minutes
Materials: Cards with descriptions of cases
How to play:
Assign students cards with scenarios that closely align with Supreme Court cases or constitutional principles studied in class. Divide students into teams that argue for an against cases. Arguments should center on course concepts and court precedents used in class. Assign a small group of students to serve as judges, or you as the teacher serve as the judge.
Bingo is generally understood as a game of chance, but the elements of control and competition can be introduced through calling out questions which align to the answers to the bingo board. Like Jeopardy, this is another variation on a review session. Or, if you want students to walk away with an understanding of court cases or the constitution you can incorporate those themes.
Bingo is fun, engaging, and easy to play.
But with all these students in my class, how can I possibly create all those Bingo boards, you
Never fear, because of the internet there are resources for you available on the web so that you can easily download to create your own bingo boards. It takes all of 15 minutes to prepare and it will be SO WORTH IT!
Just enter your terms on a 3x3, 4x4, or 5x5 bingo board. You can generate up 30 free bingo cards for free. If you need more than 30, you can get those relatively cheap. These can be downloaded as pdfs and printed, or you can distribute these online. We have 30 boards available for free right here. But I recommend creating your own boards.
So there you have it. Those are just four EASY ans SIMPLE examples of how you can gamify your political science class. There are so many other ways that I intend to write about in the future. If you are really interested, be sure to bookmark this page, subscribe to the blog and play the games!