It’s time to stop using Kahoot as a whole class review tool.

Chris McNutt
June 17, 2019
For some students, this is a way to quickly recall information they may need to know, but this isn’t justifiable for whole class review where most Kahoot sessions take place.

Kahoot is many educators’ fan favorite. The flashy graphics and fluid design make learning “fun.” It’s way better than putting a Powerpoint up and asking multiple choice questions. I’ve used Kahoot and similar programs in the classroom, often believing they were engaging review tools. Many students are excited to play Kahoot — after all, it’s breaking the monotony of the standard school day. But as I’ve reflected and analyzed Kahoot, I’ve seen what it really is: a trivia machine. For some students, this is a way to quickly recall information they may need to know, but this isn’t justifiable for whole class review where most Kahoot sessions take place.

Timing and Pacing

First, Kahoot isn’t equitable practice. Learners demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. Kahoot emphasizes the importance of quick recall. Even if the instructor configures time extensions, there are still points to be earned in being correct faster. There’s a race to bypass others by reading and responding quickly. These aren’t deep questions, they almost have to be simple, and as a result they’re rarely worth the effort in memorizing.

Memorization of practical information is done through utilization. I don’t take multiple choice tests, nor do I memorize key terms, to do anything in real life. Instead, I just do things and overtime I know what those terms mean.

Further, the multiple choice nature of Kahoot is unfair. Any educator knows the painstaking process of making a “fair” multiple choice question. Are multiple options similar to each other? Is the way the question’s worded confusing? Does the question provide enough details? Are there better answers? Are the answers too specific, too broad? The better question, of course, is why are we using a multiple choice test to gauge knowledge? I can’t recall the number of times where I’ve felt intellectually inadequate by getting a “simple” multiple choice question wrong. Yet, if one were to translate the same question into something I could apply, I’d easily be able to solve it. The latter emphasizes practical use and is much more useful to the educator: can they use this information or are they just great at answering multiple choice questions?

Students who struggle with reading, don’t understand what the question is asking, over-analyze the question, are stressed in competitive environments, or simply don’t understand the content aren’t encouraged by this process. Although the students who are succeeding may enjoy the game, those who are left behind are hit with a barrage of red X’s, a demotivating and unsustainable way to learn.

“Knowledge” and Data Collection

Kahoot has been transformed into a way to quickly assess and enter data to the quiz category of a gradebook. Educators value an easy way to see how their class is understanding information. Usually, this means that a majority of the class had the correct answer and they move on. And unfortunately, this means that some learners are left behind. It’s likely not possible to teach every student everything to mastery — everyone has topics they struggle in — but by reducing our review to numbers on a bar graph, we’re not longer engaging one-on-one in a learning community. If you’re the one constantly getting the answer wrong, you’re left on the sidelines while the majority impress the teacher’s ability to communicate rote-based knowledge.

It’s reinforcing a false equivalency of knowledge and memorization. We already struggle in a culture that believes knowing a lot of random facts makes one intelligent. We tend to devalue those who excel in practical tools or applications — anyone who isn’t an “academic.” Kahoot makes one believe that intelligence is tied to trivial knowledge. Even those who achieve are disillusioned to believe that they’re adequately prepared to apply what they’ve memorized.

Motivation and Learning

Learning can be demonstrated in many ways and we have the obligation to find which ways work best for students. Simply stated, any competitive means of assessment will lead to inequity. There will always be winners and losers in a competitive environment. Some educators believe that this is good for society — someone prepared for the “real world” needs to get used to losing if they don’t understand, aren’t prepared, etc. However, I would like to believe that our goal is to encourage every student to succeed. By ranking and filing students when they’re just trying to learn content, we’re never giving them that opportunity.

Research supports these claims. A wide selection of studies on cooperative learning showcase its benefits over competitive learning. This is highlighted in Alfie Kohn’s article, Is Competition Ever Appropriate in a Cooperative Classroom?:

“It is not just the losers who suffer from these practices. Even those who emerge triumphant come to see themselves as valuable in relation to their win/loss record, learn to view others as rivals rather than collaborators, and are handicapped in terms of learning…

The second claim is that children enjoy competing. But such expressions of preference may be confounded by the number and quality of their previous exposures to cooperation. While individual differences naturally play a part, it may be that those who say they enjoy competitive games, for example, have never had an opportunity to sample cooperative sorts of recreation.”

Students lose motivation when they see themselves as “losers.” Just like when graded, when they’re measured they lose their sense of learning. Several studies highlight this, from Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s work on intrinsic motivation, to Ruth Butler’s studies on feedback and grading, to work by David and Roger Johnson on cooperative learning. There are hundreds of studies supporting these ideas, well documented in Alfie Kohn’s book, No Contest.

When we pit students against each other, what values are we teaching them? Instead of helping those who struggle, we’re leaving them in the dust. Instead of learning together, we’re emphasizing that those who do well are the only ones who deserve to succeed. Reinforcing the individualistic notion of learning leads to universal problems that reverberate in our society: inequitable neighborhoods, lack of care for the poor, or a general disregard for those who are struggling.

It may not be our intention, but every time we use a Kahoot we’re reinforcing these claims. The hidden curriculum of competitive review games encourages students to get ahead at the expense of others. Of course, this is true for any competitive review game. How many times have you led a team review, only to have a student supply answers for another struggling team? Usually, their teammates grow frustrated that they’re “giving it away!” or “letting them win!” — instead of us recognizing that the student is displaying compassion that others need help.

What’s the alternative?

This isn’t to say that Kahoot is never appropriate. It’s dangerous to deal with absolutes (just ask the Sith.) If a group of students wants to review content in Kahoot and it works for them, they should be able to. If an entire class unanimously loves the idea and they’re dealing with basic information, then why not try it? However, I think this is a very rare scenario. And more-so, educators armed with the knowledge on motivation and research on cooperative learning should emphasize alternative ways to review.

There are opportunities to use games for review, but what we’re reviewing will change. Kahoot is great at measuring breadth, not depth of knowledge. If we want meaningful learning, we’ll need to cover content in a way where trivial knowledge isn’t what’s being assessed. This means that students will be learning through different pathways and demonstrating their learning in a variety of means. (Project-based learning, when done well, exemplifies this practice. We happen to have an overview of that!)

Perhaps the whole class review relates to our obsession with high-stakes, one-and-done assessment. If everyone is expected to be at the same point in their learning, it makes sense to organize mass review and “push forward.” Developing alternative measures of assessment, such as portfolios or projects presented to the community, will entirely eliminate the need for competitive review games.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that students can’t be encouraged to review. Utilizing self-assessment — no competition, no pressure, no grades — is a valid tool to memorizing information that may prove useful in the future, especially in a college or career environment with licensure testing. Educating students on how to use Quizizz or StudyBlue is a lifelong skill that’s applicable to multiple subject areas.

When we are reviewing topic as a class, cooperative games help us learn from one another. The aptly named Cooperative Games educator’s hub is a great place to start. Understanding the Do’s and Don’t’s of cooperative gaming helps me navigate my designs:

Image for post
via Cooperative Games

Further, meeting objectives as a class works well. By creating a shared goal, such as everyone generating a list of questions, then taking turns answering, we can develop a community learning together.

This may be in stark contrast to the exhilarating nature of “the game winning play”, but that really isn’t our goal. Unlike sports or video games, when we win or lose we’ll still keep playing the same game over and over again to achieve. There’s a valid skill in losing gracefully or having sportsmanship. This isn’t about giving everyone a trophy or ensuring that a child never fails at anything. A review game has nothing to do with competition in this manner — we aren’t playing the same Kahoot every week, we’re not bonding as a club review team, we don’t go home and practice our trivia knowledge, and not all of us are signing up because we love the game. This is about learning, something entirely different, and all learners should be pushed to achieve through our coordinated efforts with the entire community on board.

*Thank you to Nick Covington for prodding questions and editing.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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