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Faculty Spotlight: Ryan Windeknecht

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When it comes to engaging students in general education courses, many faculty members search for the perfect recipe. While some may use active learning techniques or incorporate technology, others use favorite childhood games as inspiration.

Cue Ryan Windeknecht, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy since 2012. With areas of expertise in political philosophy and applied ethics, Windeknecht teaches many undergraduate courses, such as professional responsibility and the philosophical foundations of democracy. It was during one of his general education courses that Windeknecht soon realized he needed to redesign his course.

“I found there was a lack of consistency in ethical arguments throughout my professional responsibility course, and I wanted to find a creative way to deal with that by approaching the content differently,” Windeknecht said. “It was after being involved in the Ethics Bowl and reading teaching and learning literature that I discovered that I could model my classroom after one of my favorite games: Dungeons and Dragons.”

Windeknecht stumbled upon the art of gamification, one of the twelve types of experiential learning at UT. When used as part of a course, gaming aims to imitate a system, entity, phenomenon, or process. In a nutshell, Windeknecht redesigned his professional responsibility course with the classic Dungeons and Dragons game as a model: students are given theories in professional philosophy they must embody and work out ethical problems in order to progress in the course’s semester-long game. Students are expected to complete readings before class about the course content, which will ultimately help answer questions during the game.

“Redesigning this class has really gotten my non-philosophy major students engaged in philosophy in ways they never have before, and it’s gotten my students to think in ways they never would have had the opportunity to before this experience,” Windeknecht said. “I’ve found that students are more engaged, they’re more likely to do the reading in order to solve the game’s puzzles, and they actually look forward to class.”

Students earn better grades in the course by completing the game’s challenges and earning points. Windeknecht believes this forces the students out of the grading mindset, helping them focus on the actual learning of the course.

Though gamification is not a new experiential learning strategy, Windeknecht, along with a few others, was one of the first to utilize the technique in a UT classroom. More and more resources, such as the Simulations + Gaming + Role-Playing (SGR) group, have been created to support this strategy. Windeknecht believes that many instructors may hesitate to use the technique due to its perceived educational credibility.

“There’s this misconception out there that we’re just having fun, and students really aren’t learning. But really, the games are the learning, and students find joy in being challenged through various puzzles of the games used,” Windeknecht said.

For faculty that are interested in using gaming in their coursework and not sure where to begin, Windeknecht advises experimenting. Faculty can try gaming in a portion of their course and evaluate student feedback, and fine-tune those activities before launching a semester-long game.

“Find games that you like to play and see how you can use it in the classroom. If you think about it, game designers and professors are a lot alike. Game designers always build on one another’s work. They take something, innovate it, and then make it better for the next version of the game. That’s exactly what professors do. We publish articles and conduct research in the hopes that someone will take our knowledge and expound upon it and make it better,” Windeknecht said. “Ask for student feedback, and see what’s working and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to experiment in your classroom and see what works for your students.”

For faculty interesting in learning more about gaming, they can visit UT’s Communities of Scholars webpage for information on the Simulations + Gaming + Role-Playing group.

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