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Evaluating Computer Games to Develop SEL Skills

Children play educational games on laptop computers in a technology classroom.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused many students to fall behind in reaching their assessment targets, including social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Much of the education system—from federal agencies all the way down to classrooms—is exploring innovative learning solutions (e.g., computer games) to help students develop the SEL skills they need to succeed. RTI International is partnering with the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of computer games for teaching these essential skills.

Supporting students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) skill development

The Computer Games for Learning Study evaluates the efficacy of Zoo U, a game developed by the 3C Institute. Zoo U helps students cultivate six essential SEL skills by caring for animals and interacting with students and instructors in a virtual zoo environment. After completing the game’s tutorial, elementary students play through 30 entertaining, self-paced scenarios in which they interact with characters and care for zoo animals. Each scene simulates relatable, real-life events—such as playing at recess or working with a friend on a project—and includes animals to make the experience more engaging.

The game adapts a student’s experience based on how well the student responds to characters and completes zoo tasks. If a student demonstrates mastery of a scene, the game presents a more rigorous experience. Students who need improvement receive personalized feedback from Principal Wild, who suggests how they can improve their choices and better care for the zoo animals.

The six skills Zoo U focuses on —communication, cooperation, impulse control, social initiation, empathy, and emotional regulation—are supported by more than 10 years of widely accepted research. SEL skills are proven to impact student development from a young age. Without these skills, students would lack the relationship building, stress management, and critical thinking abilities they need to thrive in a challenging, highly competitive workforce.

Further, findings from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning framework—a widely accepted model within education research—show that students need SEL skills to grow into resilient, well-balanced adults and succeed in college and in their careers.

Understanding how new education technologies impact student success

Education technology, such as Zoo U, may present innovative possibilities to modernize elementary classrooms; however, an objective look into the future of computer game–based learning is needed to evaluate the game’s efficacy. Zoo U and similar solutions have the potential to sharpen SEL skills that many students have fallen behind on. Students with these skills are more likely to build positive relationships, graduate from high school on time, and succeed in their future jobs.

Many companies are developing learning technologies, so evaluating games like Zoo U will provide much-needed evidence about whether computer games are an effective solution to improving student outcomes. With many teachers facing increasing time and cost constraints, this evaluation will provide insight into whether computer games are a viable, cost-effective learning outlet to addressing students’ unique and evolving needs.

The study will conclude in June 2023. We are excited to see its results to help us better understand the potential impact of computer games and how these games may address student outcome gaps.

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Disclaimer: This piece was written by Michael Willoughby (Fellow) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.