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Playing learning and ‘crime’

24 April 2024

4 minutes to read

Playing learning and ‘crime’

Why playful learning?

Industry values graduates with a collaborative mindset who can deliver impactful work. This employability skill can be challenging to harness especially when working with people from different regions, cultures, backgrounds, and workspace ethics. Playful learning can enhance student engagement, creativity, and innovation (Whitton, 2018; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2020; Ferguson et al., 2019). Last summer I attended a workshop on playful innovation in teaching at the University that helped me explore and think about how to motivate my students to be more collaborative and inclusive (Innoplay, University of Exeter, 2024). This year in my brand-new module of Economics of Crime I found the opportunity to apply these concepts and foster a collaborative spirit through playful small group seminars. This activity was woven with the content of the course and assessment structure for students to learn and play at the same time. One of the assessments of this module is an academic debate among four students, with two students supporting a motion and two students opposing it.

Module context: 

  • Small group seminars of around 25 students
  • 9 groups per alternate weeks
  • Innovation implemented in the first set of seminars
  • Use of alternative teaching space: Creative Quadrant (CQ) at the Exeter Business School (check it out if you haven’t!)
  • CQ can be adjusted and rearranged to the needs of each class, allowing students to get away from their laptops and engage with their classmates more


  • Preparation: a short newspaper article for students to read
  • Guidelines: come up with some for and against arguments for two pre-decided and pre-distributed statements
  • Advance notice to come to the tutorials with open mind and the understanding that students might have to move in the classroom
  • Social atmosphere: background instrumental music of Pink Panther (Mancini, 1963)

Rock-paper-scissors and … debate

When the sessions started, students were instructed to play rock-paper-scissors (RSP) in pairs, but when one of them lost they had to support and cheer on their partner in future games. The winning partner played RSP with the winner of another pair- while in each pair the losing partner cheered on the winners, etc. Eventually, the teams merge into a final game with half the classroom cheering on each player. The winner of this game is then congratulated by all students. This activity was followed by two debates related to the content of the course. The RSP activity was designed to put students at ease with each other in the classroom setting. This also linked to the fact that in both the debate assignment and the RSP game, collaboration was the key. In both cases, even though one person may want to win personally, they must be able to put the group (pair) above the individual interest. Additionally, this activity was geared towards one of the debate statements: “High-risk high reward is the reason why drug dealers live with their mothers”. This economics concept was integrated with the chance occurrence of a single winner in the RSP pyramid within the classroom – in a similar fashion to the fact that the success probability in the highly competitive ‘career’ of a drug dealer is extremely low. In the first debate, the entire classroom was encouraged to speak and then I summarised their points for and against a given debate statement. In the second, students discussed in smaller groups of 2-3 to come up with arguments for and against the next statement. After that, each smaller group put forward arguments to discuss widely, and finally, I summarised the points raised. At the end of the seminars, I asked students about their experiences through an anonymous poll and asked them to reflect on the whole session.

Implications and impact

The key learning from this session for the students was to recognise the best idea in the room and support it rather than opposing it. Moreover, they were presented with the idea that working in a group requires open, kind, and considerate communication and understanding and compromising with the differences in work pace and ethics of their peers. This enhances learning collaborative spirit and enables them to experience this playfully. Additionally, this activity worked as an icebreaker. Finally, many students also recognised the relationship of the RSP activity with one of the debate statements. Preliminary analysis of students’ comments shows that they found the seminar different, embraced the interactivity, and enjoyed the discussions in class.

Figure 1: Word-cloud of students’ comments


Conclusion and future steps

A playful activity was important in this seminar to encourage open communication among students in a friendly environment ahead of the debate assignment. In this assessment, they had to work together cohesively to create an academic debate by supporting the best ideas within the groups. This kind of playful classroom might lend itself more to optional courses. It is a great way to break the monotonicity of classrooms and get students to focus on the ideas instead of noting down the points. However, it might not be feasible for educators to adapt something like this in every classroom. Finally, it will be useful to take into consideration any individual learning plans so that students regardless of their adjustment needs can take part in the sessions. Reflecting on the sessions I ran; I would perhaps introduce a third debate statement for students to take away from the session and think about it afterwards. I would also think if an additional playful activity can be introduced to engage students even more.


Ferguson, R., T. Coughlan, K. Egelandsdal, M. Gaved, C. Herodotou, G. Hillaire, D. Jones, Jowers, A. Kukulska-Hulme, P. McAndrew et al., “Innovating pedagogy 2019: Open university innovation report 7,” (2019).

Hirsh-Pasek, K., H. S. Hadani, E. Blinkoff and R. M. Golinkoff, “A new path to education reform: playful learning promotes 21st century skills in school and beyond,” Policy Brief (2020).

Innoplay, University of Exeter. (n.d.)., “INNOPLAY Studio. The Playful University Club.,” (2024).

Mancini, H., “The Pink Panther Theme,” (1963).

Whitton, N., “Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics,” Research in Learning Technology 26 (2018).


For more information please contact:


Dr. Arpita Ghosh
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