Conceptual Change Takes Time: Game Based Learning Cannot be Only Supplementary Amusement (Ketamo & Kiili, 2010)

Ketamo, H. & Kiili, K. (2010). Conceptual Change Takes Time: Game Based Learning Cannot be Only Supplementary Amusement. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 19(4), 399-419.

Learning games, if designed well, may serve as effective learning tools supporting knowledge construction (e.g. Kiili, 2007; Lainema & Makkonen, 2003; Gee, 2003; Amory, 2001; Prensky, 2001). In this article, the authors empirically examine how elements in the game specifically support the knowledge construction processes in players. They use a math game in which a player teaches a ‘teachable agent’ (TA) character that participates in competitions with other player-taught TAs. Background on Conceptual Change

Conceptual change is required in the acquisition of the concept of a fraction because it requires radical changes in the pre-existing concept of a natural number (Stafylidou & Vosniadou, 2004). Motivational, cognitive, and metacognitive processes are also involved.
“Most learning theories rely on the assumption that concepts change through an enrichment of prior knowledge (Vosniadou, 2007). Conceptual change differs from these learning theories, because it cannot be achieved through additive mechanisms involving only the enrichment of pre-existing knowledge. In fact, the conceptual change approach emerged from an ef- fort to explain the radical reorganization of conceptual knowledge and ac- quire an understanding of difficult concepts (Vosniadou, 2007). Conceptual change is required in situations when the new infonnation to be learned conflicts with a leamer’s naive domain-specific theories that have been constructed on the basis of everyday experiences” (p. 400-1).

Numerous models of conceptual change exist (e.g. Merenluoto & Lehtinen, 2004; Vosniadou, 1994, 1999; Duit, 1999). Features: knowledge structure coherence (Ozdemir & Clark, 2007); motivational and socia-cultural aspects of conceptual change; creation of cognitive conflicts (Limon, 2001).

Cognitive conflict – when learner is dissatisfied with her existing conception of phenomenon. A model describing the dynamics of motivational, cognitive, and metacognitive processes in conceptual change is provided by Merenluoto and Lehtinen (2004).

Merenluoto’s and Lehtinen’s (2004) model

In this model, the learner’s cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational sensitivity (i.e., the extent to which the learner is aware of and interested in the novel cognitive aspects of the phenomenon) to the task influences how the task is perceived.

The model distinguishes three possible learning paths:

  • The experience of conflict (leading to radical conceptual change) – requires that the learner has sufficient prior knowledge, sensitivity to novel features, tolerance of ambiguity (a metacognitive skill). With high tolerance, a learner feels that the experienced conflict is solvable; in contrast, low tolerance may decrease sensitivity or lead to a loss of trust, resulting in low certainty and avoidance behavior
  • The illusion of understanding (leading to an enrichment of naive models or the construction of synthetic models) –  conflict is unnoticed because of over-confidence. Self-efficacy and high motivation may increase a learner’s tendency to take this path. The learner recognizes some familiar elements in the new phenomenon, but her prior knowledge is not adequate for paying attention to the novel aspects of the phenomenon. High motivation may lead to perception of the conflict and result in more radical conceptual change later on.
  • Having no relevant perception – (no cognitive change). The learner misses the conflict because of her broad cognitive distance to the phenomenon to be learned (possibly due to cognitive overload; Sweller, van Merrienboer, & Paas, 1998). This may lead to avoidance behavior or routine activity unrelated to the cognitive demands of the task. “Because any attempts to create cognitive conflicts are doomed in this path, game elements facilitating conceptual change cannot be designed for these learners. The only way to support these learners is to provide them with the information that is needed to understand the phenomenon and so be able to perceive the cognitive conflicts” (p. 402-3).

Reflective Thinking and Cognitive Conflict 

“Basically, the perception of cognitive conflict can be seen as being a starting point for reflection. According to Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985), reflection is a human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over, and evaluate it. Xie, Ke and Sharma (2008) point out that researchers seem to agree that the degree of reflection is a function of how much a learner’s cognitive structures are used or changed” (p. 403). (For more on reflection of learning refs, see (e.g. Kiili, 2007; Garris, Ahlers & Driskell, 2002)

The process of reflection can be facilitated by providing ‘cognitive feedback‘ to the player (Butler & Winne 1995). Cognitive feedback aims to stimulate players to reflect on their experiences, problem-solving strategies, and create solutions in order to further develop their mental models (Merrienboer & Kirschner 2007). Thus, cognitive feedback can also be understood as being a trigger of cognitive conflict. Social dialogue (which can be game world- or real world-mediated) needs to be part of the design (Foko & Amory, 2008).

Reflection is also linked to time (Schon, 1983). Reflection-in-action – reflective actions during playing; reflecting-on-action – reflective actions performed after the playing session. For example, the authors observed that “After competitions and playing breaks these players tended to correct mistakes that they had made earlier. This indicates that the players could use competition as a reflection tool (reflection-in-action) and could reflect on their playing behavior also during the breaks in playing (reflection-on-action). We cannot be sure what triggered players to reflect on their playing behavior during breaks, but we assume that discussions with their classmates about the game may have played a major role” (p. 413).

“As Mayer (2004) has pointed out, guided discovery learning is much more effective than pure discovery learning. Guidance, structure and focused goals cannot be ignored when trying to promote appropriate cognitive processing. Triggers, clear goals and guidance are vital at the least to learners with low metacognitive abilities” (p. 417).


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