PTAS research on the effectiveness of playfulness

[This blog post is part of a series written for the Edinburgh Teaching Award (EdTA) to achieve accreditation as a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. ]

While the feedback from participants at the OER Board Game Jam workshops confirmed that participants were definitely enjoying the sessions, I wanted to try to measure whether or not the playful approach was meeting my own goal of educating and improving the copyright and open licence literacy of my learners.

In early 2017 I contacted a colleague in the School of Psychology, Dr Eva Murzyn, and together we applied and received funding via the for Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS)  in order to research the effectiveness of the playful approach to workshop learning.

The Research

In particular we wanted to identify if the playful learning activity has:

  • engaged an audience who would otherwise not attend this type of training
  • facilitated engagement with the topic material
  • distracted from engagement with the topic material
  • assisted with retention of the topic material
  • led to practical implementation of the topic material

We conducted a series of focus group interviews with past and current attendees to identify what aspects of the Jam were most beneficial, and find out how to increase its impact on the learning and practice of the attendees.  The focus group recordings were transcribed and analysed using the Thematic Analysis approach, considered an excellent technique for in-depth investigation of people’s experiences and informing quantitative investigation or interventions (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Medieval Mayhem game – created by Katie, Lucky, Edson, Yan, and Xinwei. CC BY

Research and Findings

Our greatest difficulty in conducting the research was in locking down past participants to attend the focus sessions. The number of workshops being run had dropped due to other commitments taking priority and I had to contact and seek interviews from attendees at Board Game Jams over a year into the past. After months of emails, booked rooms, coffee and cakes, we eked out our set minimum of 5 focus group sessions with 11 participants.

After analysing data from the interviews we were able to identify that there were a variety of motivations driving participants to attend the workshops, most of which were not directly related to the copyright content. The desire to experience playful learning, and see how it can be applied to their teaching practice were the key reasons for attendance. Unsurprisingly, perception of the usefulness and overall session experience depended on the original motivation to attend.

When talking about how the participants applied their knowledge, some expressed that their copyright use has improved, but it was not a universal sentiment. Most participants were inspired  by and focused around the playful learning aspect of the session, with many having novel, subject-specific learning games in development since attending the workshop. When asked how the Board Game Jams could suit their needs better, again many suggestions focused around the game design aspects of the workshop and how to make this more tailored and subject specific.

The results brought into mind one of the articles I’d read earlier while researching playful learning. Rice (2009) states that “playful approaches in education may require activity and sensation, but experience alone is not sufficient for learning always to be achieved, there must be some critical reflection to turn the experience into learning.”. I think that perhaps this is where the sessions were being thrown off track. The critical reflection processes were all focused around the game design, and although the copyright and licensing content was embedded throughout, it seems to need additional reflection and discussion at the close of the session in order to ensure that the learning becomes embedded.

These findings are now being taken on board and implemented in the development and creation of a Playful Engagement strategy for ISG, particularly the desire of teaching staff for more training and opportunities to learn about and embed playfulness into their teaching practice.

Charlie Farley (top left), and Dr Eva Murzyn (bottom right) at the Playful Learning conference, Manchester 2018, after presenting their PTAS research on board game jams.




Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006). ‘Using thematic analysis in psychology’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3:2, pp. 77-101, 

Murzyn, E. and Farley, S (2018), ‘Playful Learning – evaluation and development of OER Board Game Jams’, Learning & Teaching Conference, University of Edinburgh,

Murzyn, E. and Farley, S (2018). Playful Learning – OER Board Games PTAS Project, 

Rice, L. (2009). ‘Playful Learning’, Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 4:2, pp. 94-108,

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