Educators are leveling up through gamification


Technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we communicate, how we entertain ourselves, and, perhaps most importantly, how we learn.

While some may frown on how screen-dependent our culture has become, research has shown that students who are interested in computers are more likely to apply themselves and attend school more regularly.

Computers, smartphones, tablets, and unlimited internet access allow us to do extensive research into any subject at will. We can also choose what form we receive information, whether we watch a video, follow a Twitter feed, explore an infographic, pore over a digital news source, or listen to a podcast, among other options.

In addition to the informational advances our increasingly digital world offers, we’ve also found new ways to play. Video games have evolved alongside our digital culture, providing better graphic capabilities, online communities, and even immersive virtual reality interfaces. From some perspectives, video games might seem to be the opposite of education.

Often, video games are considered something primarily used for mindless entertainment and wasting time, yet gaming may hold the key to conveying a variety of subjects and difficult concepts more effectively than lectures, slides, and textbooks alone.

“Gamification” in education consists of incorporating video game design and other game elements in learning environments. However, this doesn’t need to involve an actual video game. For example, a teacher could divide a large assignment into stages or levels and offer badges instead of grades to recognize student achievement. Here are a few potential applications and benefits of including aspects of gaming in education.

Improving Motivation

Gamification has the potential to inspire many students to engage more fully with lessons and other educational content by offering external rewards for their efforts. At this point, it’s important to note the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to the self-desire to seek out new information and challenges. For example, someone who is studying birds may go out of their way to seek new information because they feel proud to have practical knowledge about something they care about.

More often than not, this interest level isn’t something you can guarantee for all students and subjects. Students in a course for general education requirements and may be disinterested in a particular subject. This is where gamification can provide extrinsic motivation. This refers to performing tasks in order to achieve external rewards. In the realm of gamification, this could take the form of badges, a public scoreboard, physical rewards like a snack or meal, a privilege such as a casual dress code, or an entry into a lottery for some prize.

By incorporating these reward systems, student don’t have to rely on self-motivation to engage with educational concepts, which can inspire some students to achieve more. While this aspect of gamification may draw student interest initially, some research has shown external reward systems may lower intrinsic motivation over time. Students may disregard how their learning can benefit them personally and focus solely on the external reward. In some cases, such as a speed challenge, this might cause students to move through lessons and assignments less carefully.

Because of this trend, it’s important for instructors to pay close attention to the way students interact with gamified materials and aim to strike a balance between external motivation and naturally engaging content.

Allowing Students to Apply Their Knowledge

Teaching from textbooks, digital slides, and lectures may be an effective way to share large amounts of information with a class. However, in some cases, this can result in students simply memorizing facts and reciting the material in order to measure success. For many subjects, it can be difficult to test and apply concepts in a normal classroom setting. Video games, especially simulators, have the potential to function as an educational lab, allowing students to interact with new information in a more active way.

Some programs of study have already taken steps to create learning modules that utilize the benefits of gaming to allow students to apply concepts. For example, Arizona State University has had success incorporating gaming in science courses. Their interface HabWorlds (short for Habitable Worlds) combats the static nature of learning solely from digital slides and lectures by allowing students to create and test their own hypotheses in a digital simulator.

In one example of a HabWorlds activity, students are taught about different types of stars and are asked to hypothesize which will live the longest. This allows students to build problem-solving skills applied to a particular lesson. In some cases this process can be a better indicator of a student’s understanding than traditional tests that may rely more on memorization than application.

Also, because HabWorlds tracks how students work through problems, teachers can better measure student success. For example, a teacher would be able to tell if a student is making choices at random or if they are taking a more systematic approach. This creates new opportunities for teachers to identify knowledge gaps, modify lessons, and better assist students in their learning.

Shifting Students’ Relationship With Failure

For many students, failure and the fear of failure can significantly hinder their ability to learn. Fear of failure can prevent students from asking questions when they’re struggling, and repeated failure can cause some students to simply give up. This defeatist mentality can start early and have devastating effects throughout a person’s educational career.

In a gamified learning environment, however, students are more likely to use a trial-and-error approach in order to reach their goals. Rather than deciding to quit at the first sign of failure, gaming elements can encourage students to try again and again. During this process, students can learn from past mistakes and experiment with different methods and approaches to solving the challenges presented.

To ensure this shift in thinking about failure, it’s important to create reward systems that value effort rather than mastery alone. This helps to ensure the lessons and concepts are accessible to students of many levels of competency and learning styles. By lowering the risk associated with each attempt, students don’t feel so much pressure to get everything correct on the first try, greatly decreasing the negative emotional effects of their learning process.

Reaching Beyond Education

Of course, as gamification evolves as a concept, it stands to improve more than just educational strategies. Forms of gamification are useful in helping people with things like achieving personal fitness goals. It can also be used by companies to create more effective training programs for new employees as well as engaging employees over time. Researchers are even exploring the ways gamification might improve the treatment of mental health issues when paired with regular counseling sessions. With the wide range of educational and motivational applications for gamifying various aspects of our lives, it’s important that we continue to research and experiment with gamification in education and beyond