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Story-Based Learning: Player Choice, Not Multiple Choice

In the world of education, there is nothing more recognizable (or for some of us, nightmare-inducing) than a multiple choice quiz. Hint: When all else fails, guess the answer C!

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Oops, in this case, the answer is actually A. I forgot how to create the lowest common denominator, my bad.

Quizzing like this is important so students have the opportunity to practice new skills, and there is a need for multiple choice practice questions and testing like this. There is a time and a place for it, no matter how much some of us may shudder at the thought of it. However, as a 90s kid, I had the good fortune of having educational games at my disposal to change things up and get me excited about learning new skills; including math, history, reading, geography, science, and language arts.

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One of my favorite game series was ClueFinders, a game series with a following big enough to have its own fandom wiki. It was produced by The Learning Company and sold primarily from 1998-2002. This was from a time when people didn't usually download games; instead, they had to go to a big box store and buy a CD disc to run on their home computer.

I love this game series as an example of story-based learning because of the nostalgia factor for myself, but also because it was so well done for its time. As an educator who specializes in online learning and instructional design, it still influences how I see learning and education today, and how we might be able to improve the learning experience for many K-12 students who have had a lot of online learning in recent years due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids had a less-than-positive experience with online learning. It's no surprise either, given how suddenly and quickly schools had to scramble to transition to online learning, and the many challenges that came up during the process. There is a lot of commentary about what happened and how it went, but here we'll be focusing on story-based learning.

What is story-based learning? There are many definitions, but I like to think of it as learning wrapped around a story, or story wrapped around learning, either way seems accurate to me. There are characters, a problem or challenges that must be overcome, and a beginning, middle, and end. It should follow the familiar narrative three act structure we all learned about in school.

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The learning that takes place can be presented in any number of creative ways, especially when presented as a digital game format. The characters in a game like ClueFinders can encounter challenges that incorporate the desired learning practice activities into the challenges the characters need to overcome. To narrow it down, ClueFinders' 5th Grade Adventures begins the game with middle school students Joni, Santiago, Leslie, Owen, and their friend LapTrap, a sentient computer, exploring the ocean in a submarine.

They find some interesting artifacts and take them back to the captain on their ship, but their elation is cut short when a giant tsunami strikes the ship, dramatically stranding everyone on the shore of a mysterious island. People are separated from each other, and the kids have to solve puzzles and challenges to be reunited with their friends and uncover the mysteries of the island.

A math activity to cross the shark-infested waters. Image from

A map and geography activity to find artifacts needed to reach the volcanic core of the island.Image from

A language arts puzzle the whole team must solve together. Image from

Joni and Santiago speak to an islander shortly after washing ashore. Image from

The mysterious setting, the stories of the islanders the children meet, and the revelations that are discovered while solving educational puzzles and games kept me captivated as a kid, barely noticing that I was doing schoolwork. Although, I certainly got stuck sometimes; some of the activities were tough! Rather than getting frustrated and giving up, I felt motivated to finish the game, so I was persistent even in these situations. When I did finally finish the game and discover the dark secret of the island and why no one was ever able to leave, it was exciting and I felt proud of my accomplishment.

Do you have a favorite educational game that kept your interest? Did you feel as though you were learning while you played? Join our conversation in the comments.

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