Bring Your ‘A’ Game: Leveling Up Class Discussion by Incorporating a Sense of Play

By Traci Brimhall

Traci BrimhallI have been using a Jeopardy-style review game for midterms almost as long as I’ve been teaching. Those review days always go well. Students invest in the competitive aspect, and the categories of Jeopardy allow me to review key concepts and our stated learning objectives. Jeopardy’s format (in which others can steal an answer) keeps all members of class actively engaged in every question. Since students seem more invested on days that involve a game, I have started to incorporate more elements of play into class research, discussions, and engagement triggers. I describe some of these below.


Rules of the Game. When covering a subject that has a lot of terms and/or history, I play Bingo. I make five different Bingo sheets with the same terms scrambled in different places. Students draw several terms from a box and then have time to research those items. When we are ready to play the game, I collect the slips of paper with the terms on them and then draw those items at random. Whoever had that term during the research time then explains that concept to the class. I follow up with any other important key points, and then I draw out the B-I-N-G or O and instruct anyone with that term in the selected column to cross it off.

How Everyone Wins. The game aspect of this activity keeps everyone engaged and following the information. The research aspect makes students take charge of their learning and figure out where to look for answers. It also encourages them to see that if they have a question while reading, they can seek out more information. By sharing that information when their term is called, they are also furthering their learning by rephrasing it and trying to teach others the new knowledge they’re acquiring. Since it’s an activity that incorporates the whole class, I also have the chance to listen and assess how their independent research went and make sure to fill in any gaps that their explanation left out so the students don’t have incomplete or incorrect information.

Celebrity Heads

Rules of the Game. This classic parlor game adapts well to humanities classes. Rather than assign each participant a celebrity, I assign students characters from a novel/story or one of the writers we have discussed in the class. (I do this with Post-it notes on their backs.) Students can’t ask leading questions, and every question must have more than one correct answer. They are also limited to two “yes or no” questions from one person, and then they must move on and ask others.

How Everyone Wins. The rules for asking multiple classmates questions allows for some good one-on-one time for peers to interact and create community in class, but it’s also a great activity for critical thinking. Students must think about what characters or writers have in common or what sets them apart so they can ask good questions that will help them narrow down who the character or writer might be. After some discussion time, they make a guess about their identity and are asked to find a passage from the text that best represents them. Since I assign more than one person the same identity, I then have them find their match and discuss their questions, quotes, and thoughts about that character/author before we review and discuss as a class.

Musical Chairs 

Rules of the Game. This one is an adaptation from my time in ACUE! I’m a teacher who struggles with silence. I do a fair bit to make sure my students are prepared to discuss, such as think-pair-share and a short writing time so students have time to process their answers to questions. However, when one of ACUE’s learning modules prompted instructors to sit in the silence until students were prepared to answer, I turned that into a game of musical chairs. Every question I asked was an opinion statement, so as to not put the students in a right/wrong situation where they would fear to answer. In each round, three chairs were taken away so that when the music stopped playing, those three people would share their answers and briefly discuss with each other. They were then allowed to sit down, three more chairs would be removed, and I would ask a subjective question and play more music as students circled and considered their responses.

How Everyone Wins. The music gives students a chance to process their thoughts and also lets me make a connection with them. I often choose a certain song and say why I love it. It could also easily be connected to course content. This activity makes students get up and move around, which has been something my morning class requested that we do more of.

Cards Against the Humanities

Rules of the Game. I split up the class into groups and give each group a critical thinking question. These function as the black cards in a traditional Cards Against Humanity game. A group asks the question and the other groups discuss and write their answers on index cards that remain anonymous. The index cards are then submitted to the group who asked the question, and they determine the best critical thinking response.

How Everyone Wins. This activity keeps everyone engaged in crafting critical thinking responses and evaluating critical thought for strength of argument and/or uniqueness of approach.

Many of these techniques are just the game versions of lesson plans I already do—critical thinking questions, subjective engagement triggers, midterm review—but by adding in the element of play, students seem to invest more, and it keeps a more uniform sense of engagement across the class.

Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry. She’s an associate professor at Kansas State University and teaches creative writing, literature, and medical humanities.

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