2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 17-21
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.47A2004
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 17
Higher Education—Educating for Higher Order Skills
The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, Yezreel Valley, Israel
Received June 3rd, 2013; r evised July 4th, 2013; accepted July 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Rachel Or-Bach. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Preparing college students for a knowledge-based economy is a challenge that requires curriculum design
that puts more emphasis on learning skills than on content to be taught. Cognitive skills should be prac-
ticed in a context of some content, but the choice of content, the choice of the learning environment, and
the choice of the assessment procedures can enhance the development of such skills. In this paper we
present these choices for a course that was specially designed to provide a motivating and engaging con-
text that requires the use of higher order cognitive skills. The title of the course is “Design of com-
puter-based games and interactive stories” and it is provided to students with no prior exposure to com-
puter programming. At the end of the course students are required to submit an interactive artifact (a
game or a story) implemented in Scratch, which is a visual programming environment. In this qualitative
study we present the results from a thematic analysis of students’ post-course reflection reports.
Keywords: Programming; Higher Education; Higher-Order Skills; Games
Preparing college students for a knowledge-based economy
is a challenge that requires curriculum design that puts more
emphasis on learning skills than on content to be taught. Fal-
lows et al. (2000) claim that today’s challenging economic
situation means that it is no longer sufficient for a new graduate
to have knowledge of an academic subject; increasingly it is
necessary for students to gain those skills which will enhance
their prospects of employment. Employability skills include the
following abilities: the retrieval and handling of information;
communication and presentation; planning and problem solving;
and social development and interaction. Current expectations
from college graduates include skills for effective use of infor-
mation technologies (Kaminski et al., 2009) and skills of self-
learning required for lifelong learning (Candy, 2000; Dunlap &
Grabinger, 2009). The amount of knowledge and the pace of
change make it necessary to prepare graduates to be long life
learners. Critics of college education in the US say that US
colleges put low priority on student learning (Keeling & Hersh,
2011; Arum & Roksa, 2011).
Black et al. (2006) discuss the concept of “learning how to
learn” (LHTL), characterizing it as a “collection of good learn-
ing practices… in both individual and collaborative contexts
that seem to have the most potential to promote pupils’ auton-
omy in learning” (p. 130). Learner autonomy is highly impor-
tant because “it implies that the learner can not only give
meaning to the learning, but that she can also create new learn-
ing tools” (p. 129). Black et al. (2006) observe that successful
learners use knowledge of cognition and self-regulating mecha-
nisms, both aspects of meta-cognition, to monitor their own
Cognitive skills should be learned in a context of some con-
tent, but the choice of content, the choice of the learning envi-
ronment, and the choice of assessment procedures can enhance
the development of such skills. In the study we present in this
paper we made these choices with the aim to provide a moti-
vating and engaging context that requires the use of higher
order cognitive skills. We wanted to provide a powerful learn-
ing environment (Smeets, 2005). To achieve this aim we de-
signed a programming course for the Behavioral Sciences stu-
dents in our college. During this course, titled “Design of com-
puter-based games and interactive stories”, students learn to
program using a visual programming environment. The visual
programming environment that we used, along with the special
activity of game design, provide a context for effective self-
assessment, analysis, hypothesizing, testing, debugging, experi-
menting and reflecting. All these higher-order cognitive skills
are essential for sel f-learning. The game design provides a con-
text for exercising the iterative processes that are required from
any project design and implementation. It is especially impor-
tant when the resulted artifact is expected to be used by others.
Such skills of project design and implementation, sometimes
called design thinking, are appreciated by employers and should
be part of higher education. Game design is a suitable context
for developing these skills (Hayes & Games, 2008).
The following section presents related work pertaining to
potential benefits of computer literacy in its broader interpreta-
tion including programmin g, and the potential benefits o f game s
to higher education and to the development of higher order
cognitive skills. The third section of this paper describes the
main characteristics of the whole learning environment, in-
cluding the main characteristics of the course and the main
characte ristics of Scratch, the visual programming environment.
The fourth section describes the study, including goals, setting,
tools and the findings divided to affective issues and to cogni-
tive issues. The last section presents conclusions and a discus-
sion of the findings.
Computer Literacy and Learning
Current expectations from college graduates include skills
for effective use of information technologies (Kaminski et al.,
2009) and skills of self-learning required for lifelong learning
(Candy, 2000; Dunlap & Grabinger, 2009). The National Re-
search Council report (1999) titled “Being Fluent with Informa-
tion Technology”, defines “fluency” with information technolo-
gies as “the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself
creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate infor-
mation (rather than simply to comprehend it).” Fluency, ac-
cording to the report, “goes beyond traditional notions of com-
puter literacy… [It] requires a deeper, more essential under-
standing and mastery of information technology for information
processing, communication, and problem solving than does
computer literacy as traditionally defined.” According to this
NRC report, skills associated with programming play a “central
role” in fluency. The algorithmic thinking inherent in program-
ming, writes the NRC, “is essential to comprehending how and
why information technology systems work as they do.” In addi-
tion, the report argues that “the continual use of abstract think-
ing in programming can guide and discipline one’s approach to
problems in a way that has value well beyond the information
technology-programming setting.” As students create computer
programs, they not only learn important mathematical concepts,
they also gain a deeper understanding of the process of design:
how to create a working prototype, experiment with it, debug it
when things go wrong, get feedback from others, then revise
and redesign it. Through this process, students develop many of
the 21st century learning skills that will be critical to success in
the future: thinking creatively, communicating clearly, analyz-
ing systematically, collaborating effectively, designing itera-
tively, learning continuously (Resnick, 2007). Many others (e. g.,
Papert, 1980; Kay, 1991; diSessa, 2000) have made similar ar-
guments on the benefits of learning to program. Graphical inter-
faces and multimedia capabilities makes it even more appealing
and provide more opportunities for having meaningful feedback
and clear demonstration of programming constructs. This was
implemented in several programming environments designed
for novice programmers (Kelleher & Pausch, 2005; Guzdial,
2004). The programming environment that we used in our
course is Scratch, which will be discussed in a following sec-
Games and Learning
The use of computer games for learning is widely advocated.
games constitute potentially powerful learning environments
for a number of reasons (Oblinger, 2004): 1) they can support
multi-sensory, active, experiential, problem-based learning; 2)
they favor activation of prior knowledge given that players
must use previously learned information in order to advance; 3)
they provide immediate feedback enabling players to test hy-
potheses and learn from their actions; 4) they encompass op-
portunities for self-assessment through the mechanisms of scor-
ing and reaching different levels; and 5) they increasingly be-
come social environments involving communities of players.
Gee (2003) stated that games are very suited to the develop-
ment of inquiry skills; children learn by formulating hypotheses,
and testing them.
Educational games can provide a higher level of intrinsic
motivation than a traditional school context (Tüzun et al., 2008).
Players are confronted with problems they must overcome if
they want to reach their goals. They are faced with a stream of
both long and short term decisions, and must plan problem
solving strategies which involve monitoring a series of complex
tasks and nested sub-tasks (Johnson, 2005). A study to assess
the learning effectiveness and motivational appeal of a com-
puter game for learning computer memory concepts, showed
that the gaming approach was both more effective in promoting
students’ knowledge of computer memory concepts and more
mot i va ti o na l t ha n t he n o n- ga m in g a pp ro ac h ( Pa pa s te r gi ou, 2009).
Computerized games can provide a context for developing
various skills, but constructing such games seems to entail even
wider educational benefits. Robertson and Howells (2008) ar-
gue that authoring a game can engage students in authentic rich
tasks offering a good degree of learner autonomy. Vos et al.
(2011) report on study where they compared using a game ver-
sus constructing a game. The results suggest that constructing a
game might be a better way to enhance student motivation and
deep learning than playing an exis ti ng g ame.
Game design can be implemented in different types of de-
velopment environment. The choice of the environment is an
influential factor regarding any educational outcomes. Program-
ming a game within an appropriate programming environments
might combine the expected educational benefits of both pro-
gramming and game design. This is what we tried to achieve in
our course design.
Main Characteristics of the
We refer in this section to the broader interpretation of a
learning environment and describe here the course and its peda-
gogical approach along with the computer-based multimedia
programming environment used by the students for achieving
the course goals.
The rationale for the development of the course “Design of
computer-based games and interactive stories” was to provide a
motivating and engaging context for exercising various higher-
order cognitive skills. The learning activities in the course were
designed to require the application of such skills in a way that is
expected to affect students’ further learning and thinking capa-
bilities. The course is an elective course for the behavioral sci-
ences departments (Behavioral Science, Education, Psychology,
and Sociology) in our college. The course is offered for already
several years and is accompanied by an ongoing action research
(Or-Bach, 2009). The instructional approach, intermediate as-
signments and research tools were refined during these years.
Throughout the years we got more convinced about the choice
of the programming environment as well as about the final as-
signment. The final assignment of the course is the design and
implementation of a game or an interactive story using Scratch.
Scratch is a visual programming environment that will be de-
scribed in the next section.
The course is a hands-on course and most of the classes are
conducted in a computer laboratory. The course consists of 13
meetings, each of them lasting about 4 hours. All the program-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
ming concepts and constructs, and all the other issues related to
game design, interactivity etc.; are introduced during the course
by respective examples. Classwork consists of examples that
are presented to the students to explore by “reading” and/or
running the program elements; as well as other examples where
students have to modify a program in order to produce pre-
scribed outcomes. Intermediate assignments in the course in-
clude programming assignments, peer-evaluation assignments,
literature reading assignments about use of games in education
and a class presentation assignment. The required presentation
has to deal with the use of a game in an educational setting and
should be based on a research paper.
Scratch is a visual programming environment that lets users
create interactive, media-rich projects (Resnick et al., 2009;
Maloney et al., 2010). Scratch was created by the Lifelong
Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. Scratch
builds on the constructionist ideas of Logo (Papert, 1980; Kafai
& Resnick 1996). A key goal of Scratch is to introduce pro-
gramming to those with no previous programming experience.
This goal drove many aspects of the Scratch design. Program-
ming is done by snapping together command blocks to control
2-D graphical objects called sprites moving on a background
called the stage. The command blocks are dragged from a pal-
ette into the scripting pane and can be assembled to create
“stacks” of blocks. Specific blocks can be placed on top of a
stack of blocks to trigger that stack in response to some run-
time event, such as program startup, a given key being pressed
by a user, or a mouse click on the sprite. Multiple stacks can
run at the same time to show simultaneous acts by different
sprites on the stage. To encourage self-directed learning (of the
programmer), the Scratch programming environment was de-
signed to invite scripting, provide immediate feedback for script
execution, and make execution and data visible (Maloney et al.,
2010). The programmer can watch stacks in the scripting area
highlighted when the action unfolds on the stage. These explo-
rations are supported by having the palette, scripting area, and
stage simultaneously visible, providing the programmer with a
process model of how their constructed scripts are interpreted
by the computer.
Scratch is used in various contexts for various audiences: for
children, for youth in informal context (Maloney, 2008), for in-
troducing computer programming to computer science students
(Malan, 2007); and for college students in areas where pro-
gramming is not an integral part of the curriculum (Or-Bach,
The Study Goals, Setting and Tools
The goal of the presented study was to elicit students’ in-
sights for evaluating the course as a suitable context for devel-
oping higher order skills. The research question was: what are
the themes that students use to describe the learning experience
and learning outcomes; and especially how it relates to the de-
velopment of higher order cognitive skills. The elective course
“Design of computer-based games and interactive stories” is
offered to students almost each year during the last ten years.
The data presented in this study pertain to the course offering
during the last two years. The course was offered twice and the
total number of participants was 35, 31 females and 4 male
students. The main research tool was post-course reflection re-
ports that students were asked to submit after handing the final
course assignment—the implemented game with a required
accompanying document. Two issues were carefully considered
with regard to these reflection reports: whether they should be
obligatory (required for the final score of the course) and thus
not anonymous, or be voluntary; and whether the students’ re-
ports should be structured with open and/or closed questions (a
questionnaire) or not structured at all. The tradeoffs for the first
decision that were considered were that an obligatory assign-
ment is expected to supply more reports, but reports that are
provided voluntarily might be more thoughtful and sincere. We
decided on the voluntary option, being aware that we will
probably get a smaller number of reflection reports but with the
potential to present a finer picture of the experience that the
course provided to the student. As for the second decision we
chose a free text description with minimal guidance in order to
obtain authentic reflections phrased with the student’s own ter-
Even though we don’t consider the final assignment as a re-
search tool, it provides a control mechanism. This control me cha -
nism is important from two reasons: to assure that students
based their reflection reports on a meaningful activity, and that
students who submitted reflection reports are not a subset of the
course participants that succeeded in the course and thus had
the opportunity to practice higher order skills; but rather a sub-
set of students that were willing to invest time in going through
a reflection process and in documenting it.
All the final assignments of computerized (Scratch based)
games and interactive stories were of good quality, some were
of excellent quality. The assignments exhibited programming
capabilities, creativity, awareness of interactivity options for
users; and also use of some evaluation techniques with actual
users as was required by the final assignment. Some of the pro-
jects were quite complex and it was apparent that the students
invested a lot of thought and a lot of time in designing and im-
plementing the project.
We received eleven reflection reports. We do not present it
as a representative sample, but as a way to discover students’
subjective perceptions of the whole experience.
The reflection reports, maybe due to fact that it was volun-
tary, were thoughtful, sounded sincere and dealt with several
aspects of the course and its impact. The length of the reports
ranged from 145 to 460 words, with an average of 217 words.
All students mentioned the fact that the course was different
from other courses they took. The following adjectives (trans-
lated from Hebrew) were used by student when explicitly stat-
ing that the course was different from other courses: “hands-
on”, “practical”, “enjoying”, “mind-opening”, “encourages crea-
tivity”, “an opportunity to enter the world of computers”, “an
opportunity to create something”, “challenging”. Some of these
aspects will be elaborated through the following themes that we
defined for presenting the data.
Thematic analysis was used to identify the themes that stu-
dents related to in the reflection reports. Thematic analysis is a
useful and flexible method for qualitative research (Braun and
Clarke, 2006). Thematic analysis is approached here in a se-
mantic way—coding and theme development reflect the ex-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 19
plicit content of the data. We differentiate between cognitive
and meta-cognitive themes versus affective themes. The choice
to illuminate the affective themes is based on the assumption
that positive affect influence cognition (Ashby et al., 1999). We
present here a sample of citations exhibiting the different them es.
The citations were translated from Hebrew.
1) Concerns and worries at the beginning of the course
Part of the students mentioned in the reflection reports that
they were nervous at the beginning of the course, doubting
whether they will be able to learn to use Scratch and whether
they will be able to construct a working computer program. “In
the beginning I felt I will not be able to do the assignments, it
seemed to me too difficult.” “I am using the computer a lot, and
it is easy for me to use it for personal uses like Facebook or
Google. But I’ve never studied programming; it seemed far
away from my capabilities.”
2) Fun and challenge during the course (and during the
preparation of the final assignment)
“I have to say that it was so much fun! First of all any crea-
tion is blessed, any subject where there is an opportunity to
create something it should be done. In addition it is fun to try
and construct a game for children to use.”
“During my work on the final assignment I had fun, learned,
thought a lot, and dealt with a topic that is of interest to me—
3) Confidence and pride after submitting the final as-
“My feelings and confidence with regard to using the com-
puter improved, if I succeeded to construct an interactive game
there is no reason why I would not be able to master other
“The final assignment made me understand that I’m capable
of developing basic nice educational games without being a
“Constructing a whole game fills me with sincere and big
feeling of pride.”
“The course strengthened me in front of my children. They
are proud of me that I do not only look at what they are doing
but able to do. I learned that I can do many things that I thought
only children can do. I was wrong, and I can do more than they
Cognitive and Meta-Cognitive Themes
The themes for the cognitive and meta-cognitive skills in-
clude: Planning, Proble m-solvi ng, Learning a nd creativity . T he s e
are not mutual-inclusive categories, as planning might need
some problem-solving when re-planning is required, problem-
solving might require learning of something etc. But still these
categories seem useful for presenting students’ perceptions as
stated in their reflection reports.
“I improved my long term planning with the understanding
that each action influences others, like a domino effect. When I
had to write a script I imagined chains of actions and chose the
one that will bring the desired effect.”
“No doubt that constructing the game was very challenging!
The truth is that sometimes it was a bit frustrating; things were
not going as we planned, but I learned during the course to go
back and check step by step what the problem is or at least
where it can be and try to solve it or at least bypass it.”
“The transitions in mindset between programmer and user
Under this theme we include insights about self-learning,
using the feedback that is an integral part of the programming
environment. We also include learning about considering the
user when designing an artifact to be used by others.
“I presumably know what should be done, but I’m not sure
of the actual results. Here whatever I plan I can get immediate
“I feel that the understanding of the importance of providing
interactivity to the learner will stay with me behind this course.”
“I came to understand the necessity of adopting the game and
its interface to the learners that will use it, such as reading ca-
“It is the first course in which I felt that it emphasizes the
requirement from the student to be creative and think out of the
Conclusions and Discussion
Post course reflection can support the student in consolidat-
ing the knowledge and practice of a course. The externalization
of the reflection in a written report can produce further learning
benefits due to the fact that thoughts should get more explicit.
Along with the benefits to the student, a student’s post-course
reflection report can provide insights to the course designer
about actual and potential effects of the course. In this qualita-
tive study we used students’ post-course reflection reports to
get insights about the course as perceived by the students. Even
though we got a small number of reflection reports, they were
thoughtful and sincere. We presented students’ inputs according
to cognitive and affective themes. We see the affective facet as
important by itself, but moreover, an enabler and supporter for
the cognitive and meta-cognitive facet. Positive attitudes and
confidence can raise students’ motivation to learn new things,
try, handle failures, be persistent and monitor progress. The
findings from the thematic analysis show on one hand the
change in the affective themes, and on the other hand students’
perceptions regarding the cognitive themes which indicate de-
velopment of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills. “I improved
my long-term planning” refers to the development of planning
skills, as well as to the meta-cognitive capability of monitoring
the improvement. The findings also show students’ awareness
of the application of problem-solving techniques such as step-
by-step diagnosis, looking for ways to bypass an obstacle; and
for transition between developer and user mindsets. The use of
the computer as a model, metaphor, and modeling tool has
tended to privilege the “cognitive” over the “affective” by en-
gendering theories in which thinking and learning are viewed as
information processing and affect is ignored or marginalized. In
the last decade there has been an accelerated flow of findings in
multiple disciplines supporting a view of affection as com-
plexly intertwined with cognition in guiding rational behavior,
memory retrieval, decision-making, creativity, and more (Picard
et al., 2004). Research has demonstrated, for example, that a
slight positive mood does not just make you feel a little better
but also induces a different kind of thinking, characterized by a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 21
tendency toward greater creativity and flexibility in problem
solving, as well as more efficiency and thoroughness in deci-
sion making. Th ese effects have been found am ong many g r oups
of different ages and professions (Isen, 2000).
The analysis and presentation of the different themes was
important to understand the landscape, but looking at a reflec-
tion report as a whole has also its merit and was not captured by
the thematic analysis presented in the study findings. The re-
ports, that were more like a story than a set of bullets, exhibited
intellectual and emotional processes throughout t he course. Some
reports showed clearly that the student came to understand the
iterative processes needed for designing an interactive artifact
to be used by others. Such an understanding is important for
further learning and for work experiences.
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