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During the COVID-19 quarantine times, I found myself filling time by playing the video game Celeste. In the game, you climb Celeste mountain as the character Madeline, who is coached along the way to overcome physical and mental challenges and reach her goal: make it to the summit. Each level consists of several short screens which the player must navigate flawlessly in order to progress to the next level. The ascent is full of not only deadly physical obstacles, but also the character’s unwelcomed critical inner voice pulling her down. Beyond the beautiful artwork, the immersive soundtrack, and the meaningful story of the game, Celeste offers an incredible user experience – one that had me relating myself to the learner, and the game to the teacher. No, this post is not a plug for the game; rather it is a story of how we can find parallels to good teaching practices from aspects of our everyday lives. Celeste is a game (course) that teaches the user (student) to play (learn) in an effective, meaningful way. 

The first thing I noticed and appreciated about the game is that if you die before reaching the other end of a screen, you are not punished harshly; you’re simply transported back to the beginning of that screen within seconds of committing your mistake. No cruel taunts, no entire loss of progress, which kept me motivated to continue and to enjoy the game. This design decision speaks volumes to how creating a safe environment to make mistakes helps us learn and grow from them, rather than be ashamed or frustrated by them. Cultivating positive attitudes around making mistakes requires a teacher’s positive attitude and careful use of language. “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning.” Acknowledging and appreciating intellectual boldness even when a student is wrong, or admitting your own mistakes when they happen are great starts to creating comfortable learning environments. 

Another beautiful aspect of the game is that the gameplay itself teaches the player new mechanics along the way, but not through step-by-step tutorials or demonstrations. Instead, the design of the game encourages the players to learn by gently introducing them to new moves through an immersive experience. This feature reflects the importance of practicing active learning over lecturing alone. For example, a STEM professor could provide an opportunity in class for students to work through a difficult problem that requires more thought than simply reworking previously-presented steps. Students learn better by doing, not by watching. 

The game slowly increases in intensity, building off previously-learned mechanics, much like a well-designed class allows students to gradually master content by building off previously-learned concepts and skills. This feature of the game design leaves players feeling satisfied while looking back to the beginning and reflecting on how much they’ve improved since first picking up the controller. So fittingly titled, the “Reflections” level of the game has the Celeste “students” doing just that: reflecting. Even several levels in, after making significant progress, Madeline hears her inner voice sending doubts her way. She experiences a huge setback after stumbling down hundreds of feet. But with help and encouragement from friends whom she encounters on the mountain, she confronts her doubts and worries, and continues on with more determination than ever. The parallels to pedagogy here highlight the importance of metacognition in the classroom. Having students take time to reflect on their progress, what they’ve learned, and how far they’ve come since the beginning of the semester can boost understanding and confidence. This may take the form of a five minute reflective writing time in class followed by group discussion, or a short written homework assignment. Now, in the middle of the semester, is a great time to incorporate this practice into your course. 

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