Feedback in Games – Key to Learning a Foreign Language

Kortrijk – 25 September 2014. The use of games in education has been a topic of discussion for many years – let alone their potential impact. The question that always comes back is whether (and how) playing and learning can be combined. A new PhD thesis on learning foreign languages via serious games now provides new insights into this subject, and has come to the conclusion that instruction through corrective feedback and gameplay can be perfectly complementary. This is great news for teachers who would like to offer their course materials in an interactive manner. Moreover, it provides the gaming industry with a multitude of new opportunities.

The debate about educational innovation in Flanders is raging. One of the key questions is how digital technologies can support students effectively during their learning experience and can, in turn, improve the quality of education even further. Using serious games is one idea. There are concerns, however, that gaming comes at the expense of learning. These concerns have now been countered in a PhD thesis by Frederik Cornillie, researcher at iMinds - ITEC - KU Leuven. He found that, when learning a foreign language, the use of appropriate feedback mechanisms in a gaming environment can significantly improve learners’ sense of competency as well as their learning results.

Foreign language education by means of gaming works

Learning a foreign language by means of a game is a special case. Quite a few youngsters come into contact with foreign languages via games that have not been specifically developed for language learning (World of Warcraft, for example). Previous research had already shown that these games act as important catalysts for learning how to act and communicate in foreign languages. However, what counts in these games are the immersion in the experience and communicative language use, rather than the rules and intricacies of standard language as instructed in school. The question thus remained to what extent learners are receptive to these intricacies within a gaming environment.

In his research, Frederik Cornillie used prototypes of games that were developed specifically for language learning in secondary schools, in order to investigate the potential role of corrective feedback, i.e. feedback on errors. The results show that learners find corrective feedback useful; moreover, good and integrated feedback immerses them even more into the game, resulting in improved motivation and potentially better learning results.

Integration of feedback within the gaming environment is vital

Evidently, the way in which feedback is provided is of huge importance. In his PhD project, Frederik Cornillie also investigated how corrective feedback can be seamlessly blended with the gaming environment, improving learners’ motivation and providing the most effective learning support possible.

“We investigated a number of scenarios, such as interactive detective stories in which feedback modules were integrated,” explains Frederik Cornillie. “It became clear that it is important for learners to be able to practice within a safe environment, in which they can make errors and receive feedback as part of the game play and the learning experience. We even noticed that they sometimes make deliberate errors just to see what impact this has on the game; such moments can also serve as powerful learning experiences. My research also demonstrated that intensive practice with explicit feedback had a positive impact on learners’ grammar skills.”

Educational innovation in Flanders is alive and kicking

“The results show that playing games and learning a foreign language can be combined very effectively,” says Frederik Cornillie. “This is not only good news for teachers and students, but also great for the gaming sector. My research provides them with further insights for the development of serious games for language learning, but also suggests that the introduction of game-based learning environments in education is only a matter of time. This provides the sector with important, new opportunities.”

“Despite criticism, a great deal of educational innovation in Flanders is currently going on. Frederik’s research illustrates this once again, and fits perfectly within iMinds’ strategy in this domain,” says Danny Goderis, COO of iMinds, the Flemish digital research center. “For many years, iMinds has been developing digital tools and insights with regard to educational innovation – through research in areas such as the use of tablets in a classroom environment, enriching video material with subtitles for language learningthe effectiveness of serious math games or the development of an online gaming platform for primary schools.”

About iMinds

iMinds – the digital research center of Flanders, Belgium – combines the strength of its 850+ researchers at five Flemish universities to conduct strategic and applied research in areas such as ICT, Media and Health. Together with its research partners (companies, governments and non-profit organizations), iMinds translates digital know-how into concrete products and services. In addition, iMinds supports researchers, young entrepreneurs and start-ups in the successful market introduction of their ideas. More info at (Twitter: @iMinds).

Frederik Cornillie's research – conducted under the supervision of Prof Piet Desmet – took place within the interdisciplinary research team iMinds - ITEC at KU Leuven Kulak, which has accumulated substantial expertise in educational technology for many years.

About KU Leuven