Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Strategizing for College: A Game-based Approach to Increasing College Access
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Tierney, William Awardee: University of Southern California
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,464,509
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A110288

Purpose: Through the development of online games, this project will attempt to develop a means for students to learn, both on their own and through social interaction with peers, about their postsecondary options and how to attain them. The intended audience is students with low-income backgrounds who are not aware of their postsecondary options and who attend schools lacking strong college guidance counseling.

Project Activities: The project will modify a card game, called Pathfinder, that was developed for high school juniors and seniors to teach them how to apply and gain acceptance to college. The modifications include creating: (1) an online version of the game that can be played on Facebook; (2) a version for middle school students; and (3) tools for teachers, counselors and school/program staff to support student learning from the game.

Products: Products from this study include Pathfinder games and supporting tools. Publications and presentations of findings will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The development of the online game will take place at the University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab. It will include input from 8th grade and 11th grade students from nearby middle and high schools.

Population: The development, feasibility testing, and piloting of Pathfinder will be done with 8th graders at three middle schools and 11th graders at three high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. These schools are primarily composed of Title I minority students.

Intervention: The intervention will have three components: an online high school version, a middle school version, and supports for school staff. The online version of the high school Pathfinder card game will have players guide a character through class and activity selection, time management challenges, putting together application materials, and acquiring the financial resources to afford college and its related costs. Games are to take about a week to complete and will require 5–10 minutes at a time to advance the game. The goal of the game is not only to be accepted but also to be able to afford and be prepared to succeed at the player's college of choice. Students can repeat play the game using characters with different backgrounds.

The middle school version of the game will emphasize development of college-going aspirations and use connections between education and careers to stress the importance of doing well in middle school. Students will learn that their performance in middle school affects high school options that ultimately influence college and career choices. A combination of tools such as graphic novels, board games, and online games will be developed for middle school students.

The counselor/teacher component will include: (1) lesson plans and activities that facilitate use of the card and online games in the classroom; (2) professional development activities for teachers interested in incorporating college guidance into their curriculum; and (3) a dual-faceted mentoring component where counselors mentor teachers and both groups mentor students.

Research Design and Methods: Throughout the development of Pathfinder, the designers will work with student focus groups in order to revise prototypes of the game. A feasibility study for the online version of Pathfinder (at both the high school and middle school levels and including teacher/counselor supplements) will be carried out in one middle school and one high school classroom. The purpose of the feasibility study will be to examine the usability of the intervention in the classroom. Data on feasibility of use will be collect through: (1) a teacher interview that determines the feasibility of using the online game in the classroom; (2) a student focus group interview (with 10 students); (3) a user satisfaction questionnaire (all feasibility study participants); and (4) a counselor interview regarding how the counselor/teacher component can be used in the counselor's daily work. These data will inform adjustments in the online version of the game prior to implementing the pilot study.

The pilot study will include approximately 600 students and their teachers from 8th and 11th grade English courses at three middle and three high schools. Data will be collected using: (1) observations of game play environments inside of school and virtually beyond school in the Facebook application; (2) focus groups with 10 students at each school at 3 different points during each school year; (3) collection of pre- and post-measures of college going procedures, knowledge of college, digital learning, motivation to attend college, problem solving, critical thinking abilities, and game content; (4) user satisfaction questionnaires collected from teachers, counselors, and students; and (5) interviews with teachers/counselors (approximately 60 interviews).

Key Measures: Quantitative instruments to be used include: (1) the Student Digital Learning Concept Inventory, a 4-point multiple choice type questionnaire to assess student knowledge of critical elements of digital media; (2) the Student College Going Concept Inventory, a 4-point multiple choice type questionnaire to assess student knowledge of critical elements of accessing college; (3) the College Self-Efficacy Scale (CSEI), a 20- item measure of an individual's sense of perceived college self-efficacy on an 11-point Likert-type scale; (4) a User Satisfaction Questionnaire that uses a 4-point Likert type scale measuring user satisfaction; and (5) the Student Application Incidence that includes a summation of high school students' applications to college. Qualitative data will be gathered through student focus groups, teacher and counselor interviews, and observations of students playing Pathfinder.

Data Analytic Strategy: Mixed methods are used in the analysis. Descriptive statistics will be calculated for all the quantitative instruments and multivariate techniques will be used to model the relationships of the variable. Interview and observational data will be coded and thematically categorized using the constant comparative method. Special attention will be paid to disconfirming evidence and outliers, as well as elements of frequency, extensiveness, and intensity.



B. Tierney, Z. Corwin, G. Ragusa, and Fullerton, T. (2014). Postsecondary Play: The Role of Games and Social Media in Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Corwin, Z.B., Tierney, W.G., Swensen, E., Bouchard, S., Fullerton, T., and Rugusa, G. (2012). Gaming the System: Fostering College Knowledge Through Play.