graphic that reads: "a student's dilemma"

Gaming the System

It’s hard to attend an education conference, especially an EdTech conference, these days without hearing about Gamified Learning. As with any buzzword, it can be hard to tell the difference between a bandwagon worth hopping on and empty hype. It can be equally hard to pin down a definition, let alone best practices, for a term that is just gaining traction. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Gamified Learning really means, and why it may have the potential to increase student engagement and the quality of learning.

A Student’s Dilemma

Every day, our students are faced with a dilemma – should they do what they feel like doing, or should they do what their teachers are telling them to do. Traditionally, educators thought that students need to just ‘do what they’re told,’ because following directions will prepare them for the way the real world works.

Developments in the way we think about student learning have challenged these assumptions in several ways. We now know that students learn in different ways, so when we can give them options about the pace or path of their learning  (Differentiated Instruction – Courtesy ASCD), engagement and achievement increase. We also know that while taking notes and filling in worksheets may help students memorize a list of facts or a procedure, these are rarely the most effective methods; perhaps more concerning is that teaching through direct instruction almost always requires students to remember (the lowest level of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy), and rarely asks students to evaluate, analyze, or apply. Sadly, much of a typical student’s school-day does not even require they understand the facts and procedures they are expected to remember.

graphic for "Bloom's taxonomy"

Educators are also beginning to appreciate that, even assuming we know more about the skills students would need to succeed in today’s world, the world that students will inherit may require a different skill set, known as 21st Century Skills. Creative educators have looked at the way games engage students for hours on end, and rather than fighting the draw of games, they’ve studied principles of gaming and sought to incorporate these principles into their classes. Part of the beauty of Gamified Learning is that researchers find that games do more than just engage students: they create environments that mimic real world situations, and good games require higher-order thinking skills to succeed.

Principles of Gaming

Gamified Learning pioneers have identified a number of elements that educators can borrow from game designers in creating GL environments. While not all games incorporate the same principles, here are some elements common to many GL environments.

checklist for elements of gamification

INCENTIVES: Gamified Learning involves creating an environment where virtual rewards are tied to the objectives we want students to achieve. As such, points and badges are central elements to most GL initiatives. Depending on our educational objectives and what will motivate our students, achievements can be celebrated publicly via leaderboards or progress bars, or they can be a private way for students to evaluate their own mastery.

When points from games translate directly into a student’s grade, there is a powerful incentive for student achievement. Of course, we need to be careful when using a game to determine student grades. Before tying game results to student grades, I would suggest consulting research on the effects of using grades to incentivize learning, such as this article from CBE Life Sciences Education by Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner. One key finding is that grades can incentivize rote learning, but can actually detract from higher-order thinking. In addition, grades can have a number of harmful effects on students, and often inadvertently incentivize behavior we do not want to encourage.

In my own classes, the amount of time students spend working on an online platform influences their grades, but I don’t grade them on their achievement in the game (number of correct answers or level of mastery). That way, incentives are tied to a low-order, but necessary, component of learning (task completion), while the more complex and personal process of developing mastery is celebrated informally, or considered an end in itself.

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EXPLORATION: Another aspect of gaming that can translate to an educational setting is the idea of exploration. In a game, students learn about their environment by trying things out. Very few students sit down and read a manual before trying to beat a level in their favorite game. They learn by trial and error, reinforcing habits that are essential to learning and innovation, specifically the idea that mistakes are essential steps on the road to discovery and understanding. Exploration also helps students see that their response to making a mistake (ideally with persistence and flexible thinking) determines how successful they are in attaining mastery.

PERSONALIZATION: Another benefit to Gamified Learning is the personalization that is present in gaming. If a child wants to try a new video game, she does not start at the same level of a peer who is more experienced. She begins at a level that challenges her to an appropriate degree. As she achieves mastery of one level she moves on to the next. A student can adjust her starting point, pace, and even path to meet her individual needs.

MODDING/HACKING: The opportunity to modify games is yet another way that students can take ownership of their learning through gamification. As students become familiar with the games we introduce them to (digital or otherwise), they will often come up with ideas for modifying the game, adding their own content, or even extending the game into other contexts. Providing such opportunities can help students reach the highest level of learning on Bloom’s taxonomy, Creating. It also indicates that students are highly engaged in the learning process that you as a teacher/coach have succeeded in creating,  making use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility model as described by Fisher and Frey.

The Institute of Play has a treasure trove of resources to learn more about and to implement GL in your school or classroom.


Institute of Play's notes on students and gaming

Games Vs. Gamification

It can be tempting to think we’ve gamified our class because we have created a fun activity, but true gamification requires that we have taken significant steps to put students at the center of their learning by creating a learning environment that they can navigate on their own. Many of us have been using games to spice up our classes for years, but playing Jeopardy with your class is not the same as Gamified Learning. In a quiz game, students are incentivized with points, but the learning objective is still the simple memorization of facts. In addition, these games are a check that learning has taken place, whereas in GL, the learning occurs through the playing of the game. A quiz game does nothing to personalize the learning objectives or path toward learning objectives for each student. If the teacher is at the front of the room directing the entire class, it’s a good clue that you just have a game rather than Gamified Learning.

While the difference between games and GL can seem subtle, the resulting impact on their learning can be enormous. Keep in mind that introducing one element of gamification at a time can still be a worthwhile objective, and is often the most effective way to bring about the type of mindset shift that true GL requires. In next week’s post, we’ll look at a few models for Gamified Learning and best practices for getting GL off the ground in your school.


Game On?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this week’s topic – have you tried Gamified Learning in your class? Do you have any questions about how to get started? Please reach out and share your thoughts.