Increasing student engagement through experiential learning and virtual language learning – Kyle Scholz

When considering what effective, stimulating learning experiences entail, my thinking is often relegated to purely logistical and structural considerations: students are typically enrolled in five courses a semester, each with approximately three hours a week devoted to in-class learning, and are then expected to do additional studying outside of class to make up a forty-hour work week. As much as we may hope (and even expect) that each student chooses to spend his or her time outside of the classroom focusing on our coursework, the reality is that many students simply do not devote the recommended time on the work that they should – in 1961, students were allocating forty hours a week to class and studying, yet since 2003 that number has been reduced to twenty-seven hours a week (Babcock & Marks, 2011).

Players playing Mentira game

This then leads to questions of how can we – instructors and educators – encourage our students to spend their time outside of the classroom learning our course content. I would suggest that exploring experiential, flexible learning opportunities (Biggs, 1999) as part of your class may in fact lead to further interest outside of specific class-time. Flexible learning offers “real opportunities to generate effective and high-quality learning in ways that are economical of the teacher’s time despite high student-teacher ratios” (Biggs, 1999: 115), and which typically encourage learning outside of the classroom. The experience of learning outside of the classroom can be very beneficial to learners too, as ecological perspectives inform us, according to Holden and Sykes (2011), that “place is not a mere practicality, an application for academic knowledge, but has a profound influence on what and how we learn, and is itself generative” (Holden & Sykes, 2011: 5).

My own research falls within this area, as I explore ways to motivate our students to continue the learning process outside of the three-hour classroom window. Specifically, I look at second language development and the affordances of technology to enhance the language learning experience. In particular, digital game-based language learning presents an intriguing means by which we can harness the ludic aspects of learning without explicitly pushing the structural aspects of the learning experience.

After having recently attended the Gamification conference in Stratford, held by the Games Institute here at UW, as well as the annual CALICO (Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium), a fantastic learning tool was brought to my attention: ARIS ( The ARIS program “is a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories… ARIS players experience a hybrid world of virtual interactive characters, items, and media placed in physical space”

Screenshot of Mentira game


To give an example of its possible implementation in higher education: imagine the University of Waterloo transformed into a lively, old, German town. The Porter library is in fact an old, historic Bibliothek (library), the SLC is the Markt (market), and Needles Hall is now the distinguished Rathaus (city hall). As students physically walk through the campus, they are guided by digital quests that an instructor has created using ARIS, populating the virtual representation of the physical space with interactive characters that speak in the foreign language and request things of the learner. The students, in pairs, must then in turn go from place-to-place, communicating with virtual characters, taking photos of landmarks and commenting on them, all of which in turn can then be observed and commented on by the instructor.

Screenshot of Mentira game

In many ways this is a valuable learning experience, enhancing student engagement and producing what Schuetz (2008) calls “a state of interest, mindfulness , cognitive effort, and deep processing of new information that partially mediates the gap between what learners can do and what they actually do” (Schuetz, 2008: 312). By rooting the learning experience in a ludic, virtual environment, and allowing students to work with another to assist in scaffolding potential gaps in knowledge, an otherwise mundane vocabulary/grammar lesson can be dramatically transformed. With a bit of time and effort, anyone can construct a virtual world such as this and make authentic use of the content that is being studied in a language course. The students in turn reap a number of benefits:

  1. it gets them out of the classroom and navigating a physical space;
  2. it prompts authentic language use, and;
  3. it begins to demonstrate that second language development is not confined to the classroom, and that learning can occur (and should occur!) outside of the structured classroom environment.

Such an approach can then, I would argue, lead learners to understand that the content you are teaching has larger implications, and may serve as that additional motivation to engage in the continuous process of learning beyond the three-hour/week administrative constraints.



Works Cited

ARIS Games. Last accessed November 14th, 2013 from

Babcock, P. and Marks, M. (2011). The falling time cost of college: Evidence from half a century of time use data. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(2): 468-478.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Society for Research into Higher Education& Open University Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Holden, C.L. and Sykes, J. M. (2011). Leveraging mobile games for place-based language learning. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 1(2): 1-22.

Schuetz, P. (2008). Developing a theory-driven model of community college student engagement. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2008(144): 17–28.

Kyle Scholz

Faculty of Arts and University Colleges Liaison

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Kyle Scholz

Faculty of Arts and University Colleges Liaison