Using Challenges for Learning

I had a busy start to the year.* In addition to working on several online, asynchronous learning projects, I taught an Adobe Flash/ActionScript 3 class as part of a college program focused on game design and development.  It was a lot of fun!  I used to do a lot more in-person teaching and tutoring, and I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I dove back into it.

Most of my projects over the past few years have revolved around shorter, online modules designed to focus on a small subset of skills.  In this course, however, I was working with students to try to develop deeper, more flexible animation and programming skills.  For me, the experience was a good reminder of just how effective project-based challenges and exploration are for this sort of learning.

An example: as an in class project, I demoed programming a frog to move around a screen in response to user keystrokes. The students followed along on their computers to create similar code. Once everyone had leaping frogs, I had them split into groups of three. Each group had to complete two challenges:

  • Make a truck move across the screen (using code, not the Flash timeline)
  • Detect collision between that frog and the truck

(Yes, this is frogger inspired. Every person who dives into programming should be required to recreate frogger at some point in his or her life. So says Amanda.)

These challenges required extending the code we’d already written using functions that the students had never seen or used. The goal was to get them both to experiment with the code and to practice researching potential solutions on their own.

I rotated between groups, but only answered questions when it was clear that they had already tried to research a solution and were just having difficulty implementing. Everyone was eventually able to meet the challenges using several of many possible solutions.

My favorite part? The groups that finished the initial challenges first quickly moved on to building even more functionality into their games (Different vehicles! Explosions! Hundreds of frogs!) by doing additional research – no prompting from me required. Whenever playing with code wins out over randomly surfing youtube, I declare a learning win.

More on challenges within learning (and specifically, eLearning) from me soon!

* And then, after a busy January and February, I had a baby. This, perhaps predictably, made everything even busier and also means that I now generally have to type blog posts, like this one, with one hand.