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Russell's Parabox: A Live-Action Game for the Logical


Dr Edward Thornton, Department of Philosophy

 

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2019

The teaching initiative that I designed is called Russell’s Parabox. This is an educational live-action-role-play game in which first-year undergraduate philosophy students studying PY1103 ‘Introduction to Logic’ were asked to work in teams to solve logical puzzles in order to win prizes. The aim of this teaching initiative was to improve students’ retention of course material and to increase their engagement with the topic of formal logic. This initiative uses both ‘student-led’ and ‘peer-assisted’ teaching methods, which have been shown to increase levels of student engagement, while also providing an inclusive learning experience for student groups in which there are diverse levels of ability (Fuchs, Fuchs & Mathes, 1997).

Before running the game with students, I conducted a test-run with a team made up of members of staff from the Philosophy Department. This activity provided a double function, allowing me to identify and iron-out any possible issues with the game before it was played by students and allowing me to share this teaching initiative with fellow members of staff.  

In order to stage this game, I transformed the Large Board Room (Founder's West) into the office of the famous philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. In the centre of the room was a locked box containing a prize. According to the narrative of the game, the prize was Russell’s secret ‘brain tonic’, which he surreptitiously consumed every day to make him hyper-intelligent (in reality the prize was a box of chocolates). The only way for students to discover the code, unlock the box, and win the prize was to solve a series of logic puzzles. To solve these puzzles, students used a combination of propositional logic, teamwork, lateral thinking, and clues hidden in the room.

The game was played by 40 undergraduate students enrolled on PY1103 (Introduction to Logic) in the Spring term of 2019. The game lasted the same length as a normal seminar (50mins) and was staged eight times for groups of five students. This game was staged instead of one of the normal seminars on PY1103 and was part of the contact hours for the module.

For a visual representation of the game experience, please see the attached image sheet.

Research Support for Initiative Design:

Games of some sort have often been used in the teaching of formal logic. Perhaps the best documented example is the board game named Wff’N Proof, developed by Layman E. Allen in the 1960s in order to teach formal logic, and the exercise of formal proof, to undergraduate students (Allen, 1962). Anecdotal evidence suggests that this game had notable success in increasing student learning outcomes in a number of settings (Jeffryes, 1969), but that this effect was contingent on a large number of hours spent playing the game; in some cases up to one hour a day, five days a week, for a month (Allen & Miller, 1966).

My own teaching initiative was aimed at replicating some of the positive results of using games to teach formal logic, but without the same time commitment for students or staff. In order to achieve this aim, I decided to use an educational live-action-role-play game (or edu-larp) to stage a one-off teaching activity. The aim of this initiative was to solidify the learning that students had already completed on the course in order to help them retain their knowledge for the exam at the end of the year and to increase student engagement with formal logic more generally.

An edu-larp is a pedagogical activity in which “students take on character roles in pre-written scenarios designed to facilitate self-motivated learning, as well as teach pre-determined knowledge in a contextual framework” (Vanek & Peterson, 2016, p221). These games have been shown to improve problem-solving skills, logical and critical thinking skills, and collaborative practice (Vanek & Peterson, 2016, p221). A qualitative and quantitative study of the effects of live-action games in teaching has shown that these methods increase both student engagement and retention of course content (Bowman & Standiford, 2013). Recent research in this area has also shown that activities of this kind are especially effective at solidifying learning that has already taken place, and that they act as excellent revision tools (Mochocki, 2013).

If well designed, the use of an edu-larp can increase inclusivity in the classroom as students with different levels of ability and different levels of engagement are able to collaborate on learning tasks (Mochocki, 2013, p70). It is also possible to build in specific aspects of the game to minimise student anxiety (Mochocki, 2013, p71). In this case, the game was designed to challenge a range of skills simultaneously. This allowed the students in each team to specialise on their own tasks, mitigating the possibility of unnecessary pressure on individual students.

Constructivist-informed teaching techniques – including game based teaching models – require a high level of initial student motivation (Palmer, 2005). This motivation was achieved in this case in two ways: by staging the game towards the end of the course, students were already partially invested in the course material; and by providing material rewards, students were given a tangible goal to work towards. The intended student-experience is one in which the application of learning from the core module results in a sense of achievement when the game is completed, and the prize is won.

Student Feedback:

 This teaching initiative was designed to produce two beneficial effects, namely to increase student engagement with formal logic as a subject and to improve students’ retention of the knowledge that they have gained from PY1103 ‘Introduction to Logic’.

The success of the first of these aims can be assessed against two different sets of student feedback. Firstly, I received a large amount of informal feedback from students in the run-up to the game, which suggested that the prospect of this initiative had increased their engagement with the course content. For example, a number of students asked me how best to prepare for the game, and many students mentioned to me that they were looking forward to the experience.

Secondly, I circulated a short feedback form to students after the game. All students completed the form and the results were overwhelmingly positive:

  

 

Totally Agree

Mostly Agree

Partly Agree

Not Agree

"This activity gave me an opportunity to apply my learning from PY1103 Introduction to Logic"

74.1%

25.9%

0.0%

0.0%

"This activity was enjoyable"

100.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

"This activity will help me to remember what we have learned on this course"

74.1%

22.2%

3.7%

0.0%

"This activity would make me more likely to recommend PY1103 Introduction to Logic to other students."

92.6%

7.4%

0.0%

0.0%

 

Other student comments included: “This activity let me use my knowledge of logic in a seemingly practical situation and will help me remember logic skills in the future”; “It’s fun and engaging. Good way to apply our skills learned”; “It was an enjoyable application of logic and I honestly remembered and used a lot of what I have learned”; “I find logic really difficult and this activity gave me the chance to apply very tricky concepts in a fun and enjoyable way. I wish more of my modules involved activities like this that are practical and a break from the norm. Very refreshing approach to learning.”

The success of the second aim, namely to improve students’ retention of the core course content, cannot be fully assessed at this stage. However, the initial results of the student feedback form do show that the vast majority of students believe that playing this game will help them to remember what they learned on the course. 

Future possibilities:

While the specifics of this game make it most relevant for students studying formal logic, the lessons that I have learned from designing the game (and which I have shared with my department) will also be useful in staging alternative activities for students in the future.

 

References:

  • Allen, L. E. – Wff 'N Proof: The Game of Modern Logic (New Haven: Autotelic Instructional Materials Publishers, 1962)
  • Allen, L. E. & Miller J. C. – ‘Programed Games and the Learning of Problem-Solving Skills: The WFF ’N PROOF Example’, The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 60:1 (1966), pp. 22-26
  • Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L., & Mathes, P. – ‘Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies: Making Classrooms More Responsive to Diversity’, American Educational Research Journal Vol. 34:1 (1997), pp. 174-206.
  • 8) Jeffryes, J. – ‘Let's Play "Wff'n Proof"’, The Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 62:2 (1969), pp. 113-117
  • Mochocki, M. – ‘Edu-Larp as Revision of Subject-Matter Knowledge’, International Journal of Role-Playing - Issue 4 (2013), pp. 55-75
  • Palmer, D. – ‘A Motivational View of Constructivist‐informed Teaching’, International Journal of Science Education Vol. 27:15 (2005), pp. 1853-1881
  • Standiford, A, & Bowman, S. (2013, July). Edu-larp in the classroom. Paper presented at the 2013 National Association for Media Literacy Education Conference, Torrance, CA
  • Vanek, A, & Peterson, A. – ‘Live Action Role-Playing (Larp): Insight into an Underutilized Educational Tool’, Learning, Education and Games, Vol. 2: Bringing Games into Educational Contexts (Pittsburgh: ETP Press, 2016) pp. 219-240

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