Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gamifying the Classroom

Recently I have learned of 'gamifying' courses. I shouldn't have been too surprised, as gamifying is everywhere these days. Consider fantasy football, frequents flier reward programs, or points credit card for purchases. There is an interesting TED talk on the phenomena that can be found here, and recently a research program designed as a game has help increase our understanding of AIDS. Now it is popping up as an educational strategy, one Penn State seems to be taking seriously. The Chronicle has had at two articles about here and here, and more recently a four part series on games in the classroom. (1 2 3 4)

The core idea is that course design plays a key role in determining whether students perceive a course as work or play, and that by adding game design elements we can increase student motivation and enhance learning. Ideally, the psychological incentives of gaming carry over into classroom learning. Gamified courses have students/players engage in various activities/ assignments to accumulate points and increase skill levels. A grade is earned from an initial 0 starting point (rather than seeing each less than perfect completed assignment as loss of points). Often game like labels are attached to parts of the course. More importantly, assignments are smaller, more frequent, progressively harder, and correlated to particular skills.  There may be a variety of paths to achieve a grade, and just as in a game the stakes are initially low and increase with player skill. The result is frequent feedback and increased  autonomy. Ideally students experience more control over their learning experience and a feeling of increasing competence throughout the semester.

I'm not sure what to think. I sometimes motivate discussion using the quizzes on Philosopher's Net and games from economics and decision theory (such as the ultimatum game and the dollar auction.) (Micheal has previously posted a way to increase participation here.) I briefly tried a 'menu' system of grading which enabled students to choose their own assignments in order to achieve the grade that they wanted. But I haven't thought about gamifying an entire course. Although I can't imagine myself ever talking about a midterm “raid” or student “guilds” I can see letting students choose a group name relevant to the class. (Yes, I realize that is a terribly small step.) I am also attracted to the idea of smaller, more frequent, skill oriented assignments, such as self paced quizzes to test vocabulary and argument analysis. None of this is to say I am on the gamifying bandwagon and about to restructure all of my courses. But I am going to think hard about it for introductory level courses. Once I have put the pieces together, it may be that I have gamified my course.


  1. Gamifying is a really interesting turn in education. But I'm really not sure how to start structuring, say, an intro to ethics course in a way that achieves level and multiple paths for "level up" for the students to choose from. Maybe planning for that needs to start with a matrix of skills and small sized work tasks that practice and demonstrate those skills.

  2. Anon -

    thanks for commenting, I think you are correct. From my quick survey of the discussion, most recommend identifying the skills and knowledge you want students to have at the end of the semester, carving these up into smallish chunks, and creating corresponding assignments. In my course, at the most basic level, this would be vocabulary, argument analysis, and essay writing. In future posts I hope to say more about how I have been breaking up my traditional assignments (such as an essay) into smaller assignments.

  3. Adrian Brown, who teaches Religious Studies at The Ecclesbourne School (Derbyshire, U.K.), has been doing this sort of thing for years in secondary education: mainly board/card-type games if my memory of my schooldays serves. Apparently people go up to him at teachers' conferences and say, "Oh, you're, erm... err... those games!"

  4. (Oh, I should add that that doesn't apply to the 'gamifying an entire course' aspect, which I haven't previously encountered.)

  5. One way to 'gamify' (and this word caused me moderate psychic pain) is to move students through Bloom's taxonomy. A friend of mine mentioned that he's doing this and it sounded like a really good idea. Inspired by him, this semester I shared Bloom's taxonomy with students and noted that my hope is that they'd move their way 'up' and that I'd tried to structure assignments so that they'd be able to choose that assignment which would facilitate moving to the next level.

    Next semester I'm going to try to be even more explicit and intentional on this front.

  6. jmc - I too feel the pain...

    The use of Bloom's taxonomy seems a perfect fit. Just as with a game you have increasingly difficult challenges, and the first level – remembering/knowledge is exactly the sort of thing I want to focus on with self paced vocabulary quizzes. I would be interested to hear more about how it helped you restructure your assignments.

    One thing I didn't mention in the initial post is how gamifying seems very compatible with the push towards more assessment in the classroom. Both lead to being more reflective about our teaching goals and methods, and how these correlate to student success.


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