4 Strategies to Harness Gamification to “Hack” Student Engagement

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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On the surface, gaming and academic learning may seem fundamentally opposed—perhaps even antithetical—to one another. After all, what place could the cult classic Mario Kart, for example, possibly have in the classroom? 

The intersection of technology and pedagogy has given rise to transformative approaches that both captivate and inspire learners. Though AI has recently saturated much of the conversation surrounding technology and education, the concept of gamification in learning has been comparatively more studied and is utilized across many of the digital platforms we know and love. 

Merriam-Webster defines gamification as “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation;” in this case, gamification represents a unique opportunity to integrate game elements into educational platforms, designed to enhance engagement, motivation, and student learning outcomes (Armstrong & Landers, 2017; Rigby & Ryan, 2011).

Studies suggest that gamification can positively impact cognitive, motivational, and behavioral learning outcomes (Sailer & Homer, 2019). In particular, the inclusion of engaging game fiction—a setting, context, and stakes—as well as competition and collaboration have been shown to benefit learning. As its name implies, the nostalgic first-person role playing game The Oregon Trail leads players through a journey inspired by and based on the historical event, which is a clear example of the use of game fiction in teaching history. In addition, trivia games such as Pictionary or Jeopardy encourage both team-based competition and collaboration. 

Given the increasing number of distance learning and hybrid classrooms, student engagement in all formats is more important now than ever before. Therefore, here are four research-backed ways that instructors can incorporate gamification in the classroom now:

  1. Create leaderboards. A leaderboard can introduce healthy, low-stakes competition to the classroom. Instructors may provide a visual representation of team or class-wide achievements, whether based on a single activity or as a semester-long tracker. Students, “competing” in teams, would be able to benchmark their progress against their peers, fostering a sense of camaraderie and shared achievement. For example, instructors assigning Macmillan Learning’s LearningCurve adaptive quizzes can challenge students to compete for percentage completion, all the while working in opportunities for further understanding. 

  2. Add quests and ground content in a story. The inclusion of game fiction is particularly effective in grounding learning in a relatable or memorable context. To take this a step further, instructors may develop “quests” for students to embark upon, whether through story-based challenges or milestones. By weaving educational content into a compelling storyline, gamification transcends rote memorization. This allows students to connect with the material on a deeper level, enhancing long-term retention and understanding. 

  3. Create and launch live polls. Much like games provide players with relatively low-stakes opportunities to practice their skills and engage with content, live polls can similarly encourage students to do the same. Macmillan Learning’s iClicker helps instructors facilitate effective polls while offering unique insights and analytics to visualize student response data. Coupled with a leaderboard, this could enhance both individual and class motivation. 

  4. Use a points system unrelated to—or, at least contributes little to—grades. The key here is to decouple the leaderboard, quests, points, etc. from actual grades. Students should feel free to make mistakes and be rewarded for achieving milestones or mastering specific concepts. Tracking points not only quantifies progress but also taps into the intrinsic motivation of learners, fostering a sense of accomplishment that goes beyond traditional grading. 

Despite what its name suggests, gamification is not only about playing games and earning points; it is also about creating a context and an environment for learning, where students are rewarded for their engagement and can interact with their peers in meaningful ways. By integrating game elements like leaderboards, game fiction, live polls, and point systems, instructors can create educational opportunities that support student success and garner classroom participation. And this way, both students and instructors can work to level up learning experiences, one lesson at a time.