Sunday, April 02, 2006

game making year 11 mid semester report

I have designed a one semester game making / multimedia course for Year 11 students. This is a report of progress so far this year. The full course can be found at


  1. game making – for motivation, engagement initially but also for worthwhile objects to think with
  2. blogging – for opening up new channels of communication in the classroom
  3. explicit instruction about programming, just in time approach
The blogroll of all students in the class can be found here on the teachers blog: If you visit student blogs then please consider leaving an encouraging or thoughtful comment there for them. I have parents permission to publish the blog URLs.

The initial setting up of blogs did take some time but in the longer term it was time well spent.

Some students adapted quickly to both game making and blogging, others took several weeks to become productive and a few did not engage sufficiently in one or the other parts of the course.

The teachers marking scheme gave 5 marks for each game maker challenge. Students had to complete the challenge (they could ask anyone for help), blog about how they solved the problem (3 marks), about who helped them (1 mark) and include a screen shot of their solution (1 mark). The teacher kept an up to date open marks book which students could look at to monitor their progress at any time. Assigning percentages and grades two weeks before assessment period was a powerful motivator for some students who were behind to catchup.

Students could also get marks for off topic blogging (limited to one mark per week), writing how to tips about game maker, game maker problems and setting up their blog expertly (theme, blogroll, leaving comments on other blogs).

Writing about how a problem was solved does help to reinforce the learning process.

Quite a few students did read the blogs of more advanced students, who had detailed descriptions, for tips about how to solve problems. Pikmik and JRB01 were two favourites for this. (plan to do a survey about this)

The teacher setup an RSS feed at bloglines which collected all student blogs in one place and informed him when their blog had been updated. This was very convenient and make it possible for the teacher to give more regular feedback than in previous years. It was also possible for the teacher to obtain a more rounded picture of student interests through their off topic posts. This built rapport and lifted morale.

Some students obviously enjoyed leaving comments on each others blogs, this was seen as a fun activity.


Why choose Game Maker as the programming language?

Game Maker has a free version (but not open source), has a great drag and drop interface, low entry and high ceiling programming capabilities, extensive support materials and a large, active community (Game Maker forum). Since the software is free it was included on a CD with other free and open source software which was made available for students to take home.

Game making challenges – the focus on challenges rather than demonstrations or tutorials

The initial part of the course consists of skill building in the use of Game Maker through solving a series of challenges that are accompanied by hints. By solving the challenges students learn some of the basic skills of game programming such as:
  • what Events mean (Create, Step, Alarm, Collision, etc.)
  • how to link Events to Actions
  • the coordinate system (x, y space) and direction
  • how to use the random() function to vary motion
  • how to make characters shoot and targets explode
  • how to turn actions of temporarily using Boolean T/F variables and Alarm clocks
  • how to make one character follow another character
  • how to control game flow using conditionals
  • how to draw text on the screen
  • how to push things around a room

All of the challenges are available at this URL:

In general, I think challenges are more effective than either Demonstrations or Tutorials for teaching and learning. Why? Challenges involve both construction and struggle!

Challenges – student has to struggle for mastery, the teacher is a guide on the side providing hints or direct guidance occasionally.
Demonstrations – teacher shows how to do it, student is relatively passive at first, construction is optional.
Tutorials – Step by step instruction provided by teacher, student follows. This can be too passive, not enough exploration or struggle is required.

I think you need the full range of tutorials, demonstrations (which are more show and tell) as well as the challenges / hints (explore, think, do, ask questions) but overall I'm trying to push my students towards the latter mode.

Why blogging?

As well as the curiosity and appeal of a new technology I was motivated by other reasons to incorporate blogging into the course.

Writing and documentation is an important part of programming (including comments within code) and improves the employability of a programmer. The method of writing every day is a good one because writing improves with regular practice.

The teacher ability to communicate with students is quite limited in a face to face setting with a class size of 20. Opening up another regular written communication channel vastly improves teacher-student communication. This can be used extensively for feedback and also enables students to share off topic thoughts with the teacher.

Once students have setup blogrolls of other students on their blogs then student-student communication increases as well. This can be used for both fun and learning.


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