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Reimagine your classroom with gamified learning

By Charles Elliott
April 14, 2016
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As I was preparing to take the GRE a few years ago, I knew I needed to brush up on my math skills. Considering the best way to go about this, I vaguely recalled a friend telling me about Khan Academy, so I decided to give it a shot.

I immediately found the site helpful, with lots of videos and exercises to guide my learning. But it was the gamification elements — energy points, badges, missions and completion bars — that really intrigued me. I found myself staying up late working through exercises to complete “missions.”

Gamification, or using the same game elements found in video games in non-game settings, has taken off and holds great promise for engaging K-12 students in their learning. In my Teaching with Technology course at the University of Michigan, I’ve had the opportunity to use Gradecraft, a gamified learning management system developed by the university and used by instructors to gamify their courses.

Gradecraft is not a supplementary learning resource, but a fundamental reconsideration of how class curriculum is presented. Rather than completing a comprehensive set of assignments, I was presented with a set of “quests” with varying point values and due dates. The website provides a grading scheme based on points earned and allows students to use a grade predictor to test out what combinations of quests will earn them the grade they desire. Students can earn badges and compare their “score” in the course with the class average, low and high scores.

A key element of this system, then, is choice, with some healthy classroom competition thrown in. While there are some constraints, such as certain quests being locked until specific conditions are met, I always had a number of options available to work toward success in the course.

Was the gamification effective?

Was I more motivated in the course because of this different approach? When you consider the psychology of motivation, the mechanics of gamification can be interpreted in two ways, depending on how you consider the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at work in the design. Gradecraft’s design is based in self-determination theory (SDT), which is the idea that when people are given less external constraints on their choice of activities, they choose those that are most appealing to them and thus are motivated by self-desire, or intrinsic motivation.

Certainly, if instructors provide a variety of options, students will find that they are able to navigate the path to an A that most appeals to them. The Gradecraft website offers several research papers by the Gradecraft team detailing how different implementations of the software have affected student performance.

Gradecraft also uses extrinsic rewards extensively. Social psychology research tells us that when students get external rewards for activities they find intrinsically interesting, intrinsic motivation is reduced. I’ve experienced this in instances where a game I originally played for fun became a grind once I found myself playing simply to earn in-game rewards. We see this same mentality in the classroom. I’m sure every teacher can recall a student who demands to know how many points an assignment is worth before doing it.

But overall, it seems that Gradecraft offers more choice, and thus more potential for intrinsic motivation, than a traditional course, while still relying heavily on the extrinsic rewards of points and badges.

I can’t tease out exactly how much I was affected by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but I can offer some reflections on my own experience using Gradecraft.

Choices. I did appreciate having a choice of assignments. Some assignments sounded interesting to me at first, but once I began looking into them, I found I was more interested in others. However, occasionally I felt overwhelmed with all the options and struggled to decide which quest would be the best choice.

Scores. The ability to see the scores of the rest of the class in aggregate had an odd effect on my motivation for the course. Whenever I saw that I was lagging behind the class average, I felt the urge to complete more quests to catch up. When I matched or exceeded the average, however, I lost that sense of urgency. If I was doing better than the average and was on track to get a good grade, why rush? All things considered, I’m not sure whether being able to see the aggregate scores was a benefit or a hindrance.

Game elements. I liked that the course felt like a game. The format felt very familiar and approachable to me, as I’m sure it would for many students who play video games. After all, this was the factor that most struck me when I first encountered Khan Academy. This alone could lower students’ apprehension toward a course and make them more likely to think of it as something fun, rather than a chore.

Potential for gamified learning

Sites like Gradecraft make intuitive sense to most students who naturally want to drive their own learning. While I was using Khan Academy to refresh my own math skills, I was working as a para-educator in a middle school and decided to introduce the site to a student who had trouble focusing in math class. He loved it and quickly jumped in to explore different subjects.

Although the choices he made may have left him a little out of his depth, he was certainly engaged in the material. This illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of gamified learning management systems. Choice can be great for motivating students, but teachers must be on hand to guide students through these choices. As an educator, watching the trend of gamification evolve has been exciting, and I can’t wait to see how future gamified systems reimagine the classroom.

Charles Elliott is a future English language arts teacher studying at the University of Michigan School of Education. Prior to returning to school, he worked as a para-educator in a special needs classroom. As an active volunteer with the educational nonprofit 826michigan, Charles develops fun creative writing workshops for students of all ages.

Gamification is a hot topic at ISTE 2016. Register today to find ways to gamify your classroom.