Engagement through Gamification

By Dr. Rik Bair

I am a gamaholic. I have taught every age group from K through adult, my K-12 years being mostly social studies and science, and in higher ed I have been a school of Education doctoral program chair of instructional design for online learning and a professor of many teacher and leadership in education topics. No matter the age group, I try to work in various types of gamification learning environments. At my core I am a constructivist, and I believe that allows me to blend in other philosophies and learning styles into my lesson designs.

So, a little history, Nick Pelling coined the term gamification in 2003 but it was meant more for the corporate world where they were trying to boost loyalty and brand name. In 2009 it officially leapt into the realm of education, though I had been creating lessons a decade earlier and had won teacher of the year awards for state of Maryland, the Eastern region of the US, and one year I was even a national finalist. All because of the engagement garnered through using what became known as gamification in my K-12 classrooms.

Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts by increasing participation, engagement, loyalty, and competition. These methods can include points, leaderboards, direct competitions, stickers, or badges, and can be found in industries as varied as personal healthcare, retail—and, of course, education. You have likely participated in gamification when you carried a punch card from Subway, Jersey Mikes, or some other sandwich shop that offered you a free sandwich when you completed 10 punches. Or on social media if you posted pictures to gain X amount of “likes” to reach some level of notoriety. LinkedIn provides the display of badges showing a skill set or knowledge growth that a person has achieved. The idea is to encourage brand loyalty or motivate a person to do more. So, how does gamification impact the education sector?

In everything I teach, I work to find ways to develop critical thinking skills. Gamification is a great tool for that risk/reward decision, and the planning out of a strategy. Gamification allows for student agency, giving the learner the power of decision-making and choosing the path and pace of their learning. It also provides a more comfortable environment for them to learn in. Wrapping it all up by having the learners tell their story through a narrative technique, reflecting on the outcome and what they might do differently in the next situation, completes the critical thinking development cycle. Those who resist gamification in education often cite its improper use of rewards as a motivator. Critics argue that relying on games can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation. Receiving a badge for a job well done is meaningless without an understanding of what specific skills this badge rewards. Games cannot be used to replace pedagogy, but games can be used to enhance the overall learning experience.

Today’s school age children are immersed in gaming at home and in their interactions with their friends. So, let’s simulate some of those concepts they are already familiar with. What if you abandoned grades and implemented an “experience points” system? Students’ letter grades are determined by the number of points they have accumulated at the end of the course. In other words, by how much they have accomplished. Students are progressing towards levels of mastery, as one does in games. Each assignment and each test feel rewarding, rather than disheartening, because they are wanting to get as many points as possible to level up. Using experience points allows educators to align levels with skills and highlight the inherent value of education.

Badges can be a great motivator, and I can attest that it drives me to achieve on tools such as Duolingo. Duolingo is a gamified language learning application based on constructive levels of learning achievement. So, let’s apply it to schoolwork. For each assignment completed, award students with badges. This may seem like a regression back to kindergarten with stickers or gold stars, but it’s working for Khan Academy. As students watch instructional videos and complete problem sets, Khan Academy awards them with points and badges to track progress, award skill levels, and encourage perseverance. Speaking of math, a gamification plan I was a part of designing involved levels and badges, not just for learning math skills, but for teaching them as well. Let’s say after a learner has achieved earning badges for completing the basic algebra levels for addition, subtraction, multiplying and dividing. You could award them a first level peer instructor badge. Then for every 5 students who need help comprehending a math skill, they help complete a basic algebra level, they level up. And the teacher could keep a leaderboard that shows who the peer instructors are, and by their levels, how helpful they might be. By teaching, the peer instructors advance their skills, and the teacher now has motivated help in the classroom to spread the load for additional help when learning difficult concepts. And it is best to show a leaderboard as levels, such as for Earth Science students work their way up levels of the hardness scale instead of showing points.

Ah video games, I was a child of Atari and Intellivision when they were first introduced, and life became all about getting to the next level. Later as a teacher I purchased a class set of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail in the late 1990s and used them as parts of lessons, or a change in instructional pace. The use of games allows students to fail, overcome, and persevere. Students are given a sense of agency—in games, they control the choices they make, and the more agency students have, the better students feel about their learning environment. Instantaneous feedback and small rewards (or big ones, like winning) are external motivators that work. There are many tools available now like Quizlet.com, that can make practicing language, math, term definitions fun, but also develop knowledge.

Tournaments require a bit more from the instructor to keep them from being a negative experience for some learners. Tournaments can incentivize students to learn the material and practice. After all, everyone wants to see his or her name on the leaderboard, right? Well, what about those who are not achieving at as high a level? We do not want those learners to feel like they are inferior in any way. So be sure to add creative categories of bonus points like who learned the most that particular day, tried the hardest, helped others acquire a skill, and so on to keep it from being all about just those at the top. Also, the use of clicker type tools can remove the introvert cloud and allow the quieter learners an avenue of participating, who normally may be too shy to raise their hand to answer. My classroom set of clickers was numbered by my seating chart so I knew who was what number, but I never let on that I did, nor that it was set up that way. I could run the data for each class and see percentagewise how each person was doing and what questions may have been areas that I should spend more time on.

There are many already created lessons in quizlet.com, and you can create your own with a free teacher account and direct your students to them. There are many ways to build knowledge and the kind of tests they can take. There are also interactive games such as Gravity, where asteroids are falling with a Spanish name on them and the student has to type in the correct translation before asteroid hits the ground. As the students do well, they fall faster. Red ones fall that indicate they have submitted a wrong answer to that term before. They are simple games, and students can do this outside the classroom.

Encourage camaraderie among students by setting up a rewards system where students achieve something as a team. For example, set a goal of 80% of the class passing an exam. As a reward, give the entire class bonus points. That way, students are working to master the material together instead of competing, and the highest-achieving students will help those around them.

Ultimately, educators hope that games translate learning into informal environments. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for an educator. Games allow the curiosity—and the learning—to continue after the bell rings. How about a treasure hunt? Or Quests? When I was teaching 6th grade world geography, a current event about US trade relations with other countries occurred, so I worked it in. At first, I got the usual “who cares and why is it important to want to trade with those countries”. So, I asked the class where their favorite things at home came from. “The store”, was the popular answer. So, I instantly gamified their homework.

First, I explained that all things they buy must have a tag on them showing the country of origin. Then for their homework assignment I asked them to go around their house and list the item and the country it came from, and I want a minimum of 20. Bonus points to those who find items from the most countries. Now I only asked for 20, the class average was closer to 50 and it allowed us to graph which countries each class had as major trading partners and sparked quite a discussion. Even the parents got caught up in that one, and it was so simple on my end. But the biggest joy was knowing that in many households’ parents were talking to their children positively about school.

I was a social studies and science teacher, and I was always looking for ways to cross curriculum, whether it was having the reading teacher schedule book selections to match my units or bringing in science and math as part of my instruction. An example of this would be a 6th grade lesson I created when I was teaching early interactions between Africa and Europe. For the lesson, I started with having the class determine the difference between wants and needs as a warm-up. Then I slid into using their definition to help them understand why central Africans traded blocks of gold equally for blocks of salt to Europeans. Mind blowing to a 6th grader that such a thing would happen until they understood the heat in central Africa led to the Africans needing salt in their diet to stay healthy, and Europeans wanting gold to build their empires. What obstacle was between the two trading partners? The Sahara Desert.

We discussed caravans crossing back and forth and the various dangers they faced from the tsetse fly to sandstorms. This led to the experiential learning gamification that could be done in the math classroom. This lesson could be much more detailed for higher level grades, but I kept the math simple for this age. Each African trader, meaning the student, was given $1000 to invest in building their caravan. Each block of gold to be shipped could be purchased for $1. They had three options for carrying the gold and salt across the desert. A human for $10 a round trip that could carry 40 pounds. A mule for $40 a round trip that could carry 100 pounds. Or a camel that cost $100 per trip and could carry 250 pounds. If they choose to use mules or camels, then they must also pay to have one non-cargo carrying human for every 4 animals to lead them. You can either spend a class working through options and forming equations to help them plan or have them mull over it as homework. Depending on age, you likely want to be available to help them the first time in class.

 As a warmup each day, the students rushed into class and quietly figured out and submitted their caravan choice for the day. For each successful block of salt they came back with, they got to sell it at 5 times the price they paid for gold. The first few days I let them have safe journeys to get into the flow of things, build their wealth, and watch them figure out what they thought was the best process. The leaderboard is posted showing the story so far. Day 4, it was time to add realism and cause chaos to their nice little plans. It could begin with a swarm of tsetse flies that killed off 20% of their caravan. With big eyes they calculated the loss, imagine losing 1 of 4 camels. And now the critical thinking really explodes as they try to figure out what kind of caravan can take the smallest percentage profit loss. The next day it could be random percentages to each student, and maybe some escape trouble. There were detailed conversations among the students in the hallways, at lunch, and in other classes, as they shared success, failures, and plotted ideas. And I got to deal with the other teachers who were asking what in the world did we do to fire the students up about math and social studies.

In essence, they had homework, but it was never officially assigned. They knew they had to come into class each day and have about 10 minutes to see the results of the prior day and submit their next caravan trip plans. After a few more days it was time to bring an end to the adventure, and I would announce they would have two more trips to see who will become the Sultan of the Sahara Trade Empire. On the last day when they came in and settled, it was announced that massive sandstorms struck some areas and wiped out some of the caravans. Eyes grew large and looks went around the room. I had what the students referred to as the “cup” where I had slips of paper with all their names on and I would draw from the cup for different things, random groups/partners and for situations like this. I announced I am going to randomly draw X amount of names, and if your name is drawn, the word in town is your caravan has arrived back safely and you can do your final calculations. You could cut the tension with a knife until the final name was drawn. Then the calculations were made, and the final leaderboard went up and the Sultan was crowned. And math ruled the day. Think of the real-life experience applications they gained from this lesson and think of ways you could gamify something in your classroom.

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