Gaming the Transition to Post-secondary

“The first week was confusing.”

This was overheard from a student playing the first round of Tabletop University, a game designed to simulate students’ first semester in college or university.

“You know what else can be confusing?” asks the game master.

“The first week of college.”

Social events, the start of classes, and the litany of questions: What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from? Figuring out what to do and with whom can be bewildering for students in their first year of post-secondary study.

Players confront all of this and more in Tabletop University, the Blueprints for Student Success college transition board game. The object of the game is for players to manage time strategically with the goal of maximizing GPA and social connections while earning enough money to pay tuition and managing life events and stress. Simulating students’ first semester, it’s a lot to manage in a game. But it’s also a lot to manage in real life.

In addition to time management, players (or teams of 2 to 3) learn about the student success programs and services that exist on college/university campuses. Dr. Seifert’s research team has shown that students may be unaware of these supports and benefit from peers who connect them with campus services. By playing Tabletop University, students are introduced to areas such as Financial Aid and Supplemental Instruction. Players choose whether to allocate time to take advantage of their benefits, like grant monies/bursaries or enhanced peer-to-peer tutoring.

Tabletop University is the result of a collaboration between Dr. Tricia Seifert, Associate Professor of Adult & Higher Education and Principal Investigator of the Blueprints for Student Success project, and Magic Sails game development company. Dr. Seifert approached the Blackstone Launchpad at Montana State University where she met Waylon Roberts venture coach and game developer. After sharing an early prototype, Waylon suggested Magic Sails could bring to life a game focused on the college transition.

After several iterations and game play with hundreds of students in Montana’s rural communities, the verdict is in. The game is fun AND students learn from playing.

Grade 12 students playing Tabletop University

Recently, Dr. Seifert and Wendi Fawns of Valley Oak Education Resource Center played with students at Darby High School, Florence High School, and Victor High School, small rural schools in Montana’s Ravalli County with fewer than 30 students in their graduating class, as part of an #iGraduateMT grant project.

One of the school counselors observed,

Anyone who has ever worked with high school students knows you can tell them a piece of information and a month later some will tell you they never heard that piece of information before. Watching students play Tabletop University, I could see the information being imprinted in a different way than just informing students about college.  For example, students were able to hear about academic advising, and then make a strategic decision about how to spend their time and money that week in the game.

Students at our school were paired in teams, so they were able to discuss strategy with each other.  It was obvious that this information was being imprinted on students watching them play the game for a second time when they were advising each other and talking strategy about the nuances of the game. One student was overheard saying; “Last time I played I did academic advising and my GPA rose, so we should definitely do that.”

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Meeting with an academic advisor and identifying a good academic fit ignites interest in the subject matter and results in a higher GPA. Students learn this and other strategies through repeated play. The first time students play the game they may spend all their time in academics and have no friends at the end of the game. Let’s face it; it is hard to be successful in college with no friends. The next time students play they allocate their time in a way that balances academics as well as social life. Moreover, they realize they don’t have to do it all alone; they recognize the people, programs, and services on campus that can help them along the way.

Games allow students to try, fail, learn, and succeed in a space where the consequences are as simple as a ‘do over.’ This is the beauty of game-based learning. This is not the case when students are flung onto a post-secondary campus without the practice and knowledge of how to ‘do college.’ The consequences in this case can be dire. Students try college for a couple of weeks, fail to connect academically and socially, and deem they are simply not ‘college material.’ The key motivation for the Blueprints for Student Success project is to assist students to develop what David Conley and others refer to as the ‘college knowledge’ they need for early and ongoing success. This contributes to students persisting and achieving the academic and personal goals they set for post-secondary study.

It’s exciting times for the Blueprints for Student Success project with plans to make Tabletop University available for high school, college and university educators. It’s not enough, however, to make the game available. The long-term plan is to follow-up with students as they transition from high school to college, examining if they engage differently as a result of game play. If you find this as exciting as we do, we would love for you to be a part of this project. Let us know of your interest by leaving a comment and stay tuned!

If you would like project and game updates, follow Blueprints for Student Success – Montana on Facebook or @_blueprints on Twitter.

Generous funding to support the development of Tabletop University and the Blueprints for Student Success research project has come from:

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A collaborative grant project of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Office of Public Instruction, and Montana Department of Labor & Industry

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College of Education, Health & Human Development at Montana State University

Montana State University’s Outreach and Engagement Council

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