Ever earned reward points for chowing down at your favourite restaurant? Gained a badge for your seven-day step streak? Competed for the top spot on the leaderboard of your language learning app? If you answered “Yes” to any of those questions, you’ve experienced gamification: the practice of injecting game-like elements into decidedly non-game activities to make them more enjoyable. It’s a popular strategy for engagement across marketing campaigns, productivity apps, health and wellness programs and workplace training… and it turns out, it can be a pretty effective tool in K-12 instruction, too.

In fact, though it’s a fairly new area of study, early research shows gamification may help students develop a more positive attitude toward subjects like math, reduce disruptive behaviour in class, encourage cognitive growth and improve attention span.

Although we can’t gamify this blog, we can promise a fascinating breakdown of gamification in the classroom, offer some lesson planning ideas and give you next steps on how to fit it into your lesson planning and curriculum mapping.

Gamification 101

So how does gamification work, exactly? Well, the basic logic goes something like this: when we play games, we have fun. Fun experiences lead to immersion and engagement. We know that engaging students leads to better learning outcomes. Therefore, by introducing game-like elements into our classrooms, we can better engage students and help them grow. (Maybe a bit oversimplified, we know – but you get the drift.)

Not to be confused with game-based learning, which asks students to play games in the service of education, gamification is all about taking the features that make games so engaging and applying them in other kinds of learning activities. These features include things like:

  • Experience points that accumulate toward mastery
  • Badges that reward players for achieving something notable
  • Leaderboards that show how players stack up against the competition
  • Quests that let players make meaningful choices
  • Checkpoints that mark progress toward a goal
  • Boss battles that present a tough challenge and test players’ skills

While it may seem tempting to call it a passing fad, gamification has been a part of education for quite a while. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are well-known for awarding merit badges to members who demonstrate proficiency in skills and knowledge ranging from first aid to robotics – a practice they’ve kept up since the early 1900s.

The difference in 2021? New forms of technology and connectivity in classrooms give teachers more opportunity to implement it in new ways and measure learning success. These days, there isn’t just an app for that – there’s a whole library of apps and platforms that facilitate gamified instruction, and the list of lesson planning ideas keeps growing as the practice continues to mature.

More than a game

When AP Biology teacher Paul Anderson set up a laptop in his classroom and invited his students to play a few games of Angry Birds before class began, he noticed a few things happening. His students would fearlessly try, fail, and try a level again until they succeeded at a level. They gathered around the laptop and cheered the players on. They willingly took turns and shared ideas to come up with solutions.

Gamified learning is all about taking those kinds of benefits and turning them into an everyday experience in the classroom. By infusing learning activities with a little game magic, students can:

  • Take more ownership over their learning: Allowing students to make meaningful choices along their learning journey gives them more agency and control.  
  • Have room to fall – and get up again: Emphasizing “play again” rather than “game over” creates a more relaxed atmosphere for students to experiment with new approaches and ideas.
  • Track their accomplishments: Progress indicators show students where they started, where they’re going and how close they are to their goal.
  • Get motivated: Sure, rewards are an extrinsic motivator, but they can still be effective in developing knowledge and skills. And who knows – they may lead to an intrinsic motivation for learning!
  • Share their journey with others: Both games and learning can be social activities. Gamification provides an opportunity to team up or compete with classmates to achieve new levels of mastery.
  • Keep a good thing going: The more engaging the learning, the more students will want to dive in and take it further.

Gamification in action

Here’s the best news of all: you don’t need to switch up your entire lesson plan or curriculum to include gamified learning in your instruction. In fact, it can be as easy as adding simple twists to your existing learning activities. Here are some of our favourite gamified lesson planning ideas:

Badges

Award badges to students as they meet certain defined thresholds for different tasks, skills, assignments, standards or even class participation. Within each category, you can provide different “levels” of challenge and achievement within a single category, making that sense of accomplishment accessible for everyone in the class while also introducing steps or scaffolds in learning. Give students an opportunity to display their badges for everyone to see to encourage camaraderie – or competition.

Level-up

Introduce a “level-up” system with experience points that can be traded in for rewards at certain checkpoints. As students complete their work or achieve class objectives, they can watch their progress bars fill up – and once they reach certain levels, they can use them on individual rewards (like getting extra computer time) or pool them together for class rewards (like having a five-minute dance party). It’s important to give students a choice when it comes to how they’d like to earn points, so make sure to include a wide variety of activities when planning how they can be earned.

Leaderboards

Foster a healthy sense of competition with leaderboards. Leaderboards might display the total points each student has earned, giving high-scorers a sense of accomplishment and validation, and motivating their peers to up their game in search of that top spot. That said, leaderboards can be demotivating to students at the bottom, so use them with sensitivity and care.

Quests

Turn assignments into quests. Role-playing games (also known as RPGs) often follow a narrative and offer the player choices that have different outcomes. In a classroom example, students might choose between fiction and non-fiction reading, which then branch off into different genres and sub-genres, inviting students to “choose their own adventure” based on what interests them most.

Skill trees

Map your curriculum with skill trees. Many popular video games include “unlockable” skill trees that use tiered goals, prerequisite skills and branching options to advance – for example, you might have to master casting a fireball before you can summon a fire elemental. You can share your classroom’s learning objectives in a similar way, where students need to master certain skills or standards before they can unlock the next one.

Six steps to a gamified classroom

Like any effective classroom strategy, gamification isn’t about throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. A solid, gamified curriculum map starts with a few well-thought-out steps:

1. Identify what should be gamified

Gamification is all about motivation and engagement, so focus on areas in your classroom where those elements are lacking. If students are having trouble getting started on their anchor activities, for example, you can use badges or experience points to help give them an added boost.

2. Know your students

Inject your lesson planning with game mechanics your students already know. If they’re into Pokémon, you may put more emphasis on collecting achievements in a class Pokédex; if they’re more into the battle royale genre, class competitions may provide that extra push to be the “last kid standing.”

3. Set the rules

All games have rules, and this is no different. Share with the class how your gamified approach works, and clearly outline their paths to advancement… and reward!

4. Keep it flexible

At the same time, it’s important to give students a choice in how they want to progress, based on their interests and abilities. If you’re awarding experience points, for example, make sure there are multiple ways to earn them.

5. Extend it beyond one subject

Think big. As you’re mapping your curriculum, look for opportunities to add gamification that connects with other subjects and ties in learning from previous years. You can even work alongside other teachers to create cross-class goals that turn learning into an adventure that lasts for years to come!

6. Track your own progress

Is your gamified approach working? You won’t know unless you measure your own progress toward your classroom goals. Hey – this is a fun opportunity to set up an XP bar for yourself!

Remember: your goal is to make your curriculum and your lessons more engaging throughout not just for the sake of fun, but to help advance student learning. Now, game on!

Find out how gamification can help address learning loss in How to Use COVID Relief Funding for Your School. Learn how it can help with problem solving in How to Increase Student Engagement with Technology.

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