6 Ways Playing Educational Video Games Can Support Learning

By Joanne Oh

Can managing resources in games like Minecraft benefit classroom education? It depends on the success of a capacity called transfer of learning, which occurs when existing knowledge and skills learned in one context are applied to a new task in a new situation.


Source: Patricia Prudente on Unsplash


Many scholars have identified six key types of transfers.

  1. Near transfer takes place when the transfer source and target have obvious overlap and similar learning contexts. For instance, someone who knows Spanish will likely be able to learn French more easily, because Romance languages share many similarities.
  2. Far transfer takes place when the transfer source and target don’t share obvious overlap or similar learning contexts. This kind of transfer may require more direct coaching or guidance. Someone skilled in dance may be able to apply their understanding of body alignment to ice skating. But because one activity is on land and the other is on ice, some people may need a coach to see the connection between the two styles of movement.
  3. Low-road transfer refers to skills that are so well-ingrained in a person that they are easily triggered and occur in an automatic manner. By using flash cards, students learn to reproduce a pre-written answer when prompted by a particular word or phrase.
  4. High-road transfer refers to prior knowledge that needs to be abstracted to apply to another context. This kind of transfer requires searching for associations between contexts that may be difficult to recognize. An example would be solving economics problems with skills acquired from Calculus.
  5. Positive transfer occurs when prior learning from a source context benefits learning and performance in a target context. For instance, the ability to swing effectively in tennis could help someone produce a good swing in racquetball.
  6. Negative transfer occurs when prior learning from a source context hinders learning and performance in a target context. English-speaking students sometimes have difficulty learning Japanese because the word order in sentences is inverted from what they are used to.

Source: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash


Why does this matter for educational video games? As one review demonstrates, playing action video games can improve cognitive and motor skills such as learning to learn, visual short-term memory, spatial cognition, reaction time, and speed accuracy. In addition to developing skills instrumental to winning games, players were able to take patterns in the game environment and transfer them to contexts outside of the game.

With so much transfer already occurring automatically, we can capitalize on this ability to make spaces like video games a more effective place to learn. By understanding the different ways in which transfer of learning occurs, we can help students play more of an active role in applying what they learn from one medium to another.


In Part 2, we will explore how we can help students transfer knowledge and skills more effectively.

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