Designing Successful Gamification Practices in Higher Education
By Bob Hand
Gamification has become an increasingly pervasive part of education over the last decade. Educators in K-12 schools have found creative ways to engage students by gamifying coursework. But why are these teaching strategies not more common in higher education?
Gamification, the process of introducing elements and mechanics from games into the classroom, can often be dismissed as just a buzzword in HigherEd. HigherEd educators and students have become apprehensive of the concept of mixing work with games. The aim of gamifying the curriculum is to improve student motivation and engagement—and when applied correctly, there is evidence that games can improve student performance.
However, gamification has had both positive and negative effects in education. Here are examples of both sides.
Promising Uses of Gamification
For educators, mastering gamification requires restructuring current teaching methods. It is only successful if it is holistically integrated into the curriculum. Affixing game mechanics to pre-existing lesson plans in a slapdash manner can confuse and frustrate students; it can unnecessarily complicate simple processes. Here are some examples of well-implemented gamification:
Modeling your classroom as a role-playing game.
A well-known example of successful gamification in education is that of the work of Dr. Lee Sheldon. In 2009, this professor began modeling his classroom on a massively multiplayer online game. Students created avatars, formed guilds with classmates and completed quests to gain experience points.
Furthermore, Sheldon made structural changes to the class to offer choices to his students. Students could tackle assignments in the order of their own choice. As long as they reached level twelve by the end of the semester, they would receive an A.
According to Sheldon’s book, The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game, the average grade of students rose from a C to a B under this new system. Attendance records also improved drastically. Other educators have taken notice, and many of the strategies described in Sheldon’s work pervade pedagogy today.
Gamification to motivate students during lectures.
Engaging over two hundred students at a college lecture might seem like a daunting task, but Professor Cliff Lampe has found that the solution is to gamify his lectures. At the University of Michigan, Lampe has been using elements of gamification such as offering students the freedom of choice, providing rapid feedback via a monitoring system, offering chances for students to work as a team, and using “game labels” (such as those used by Dr. Sheldon).
Despite scrutiny from his peers, Lampe’s strategies proved successful. The lecturer has reported that students have given extremely positive feedback to his approach. Students praise the professor’s focus on collaboration and choice. Furthermore, they claim to have a greater retention of class material.
Examples of Ineffective Gamification
There are also several examples of ineffective uses of games in HigherEd. While usually well-intentioned, these attempts do not contribute to better learning. These attempts to gamify either fail to engage students, misunderstand the purpose of gamification, or merely distract students with extrinsic motivators:
Games do not always motivate students.
Virtual badges and other rewards will help to motivate some students. However, a number of students will inevitably be turned off by gamification. Due to preconceptions they may carry, they will not respond favorably to such strategies. Other students may be turned off by the competitive nature of some aspects of gamification. Some elements, like leaderboards, should be optional for students to participate in.
Simply using extrinsic motivators, such as virtual trophies or achievement points, does not always guarantee students will actually care or be more engaged. Educators must be mindful of which gaming elements they want to try to implement into the college classroom. Most gamers will agree that achievement points and virtual trophies do not make a game good. On the other hand, choice, rapid feedback, and creative design do contribute to an engaging experience. These are the elements that professors should seek to incorporate into their teaching.
Trivializing important issues.
Introducing games into the classroom can be an effective strategy. However, using games that are based on sensitive issues can be a misstep. Author and technology advocate Refranz Davis brought up an excellent example of this mistake in an article about the game Mission US: Flight to Freedom—a game intended to give an intimate look at the history of slavery in the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are some troubling implications in the game. The fate of the player is dependent on what choices he or she makes; when the player ends the game as a slave, it is due to the decisions they made. The implication that slavery was a choice is absurd, and likely offensive to many students.
Successful gamification involves introducing elements of games into lesson planning, and it can guide the structure of the classroom, but merely introducing games into the classroom is not necessarily an effective approach to gamification.
However, there are clear incentives for educators to adopt high-quality gamification. The impact it has had on HigherEd has been substantial. Promising results continue to pour in from universities across the nation. Even counselors are finding novel methods of using technology to engage students. While more data will be needed, gamification will continue to find a place in classrooms at universities.
In the future, new strategies will be available in higher education. Universities are adopting BYOD policies, which will provide easier technology implementation for students. Pioneers in edtech are even finding ways to use virtual reality in the classroom. This shift will give students the chance to explore subjects in exciting ways.
Adaptability is key to successful teaching, and prudent educators should be careful to only implement proven strategies. Furthermore, routines can grow ineffectual over time—if a pedagogical approach is identical in every lesson, students will cease to be motivated by that approach. There are hundreds of platforms for introducing game mechanics into the classroom. Educators should continue to explore these options, and pioneer new ways to motivate and engage students.
For more, see:
- 8 Principles of Productive Gamification
- Three Steps to Better Engage Higher Education Students
- Leaderboards: Learning Lessons From Research & Gamifcation
Bob Hand is a blogger and education enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter: @bob_hand567.
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