The Elements of a Learning Program that Eight Out of Ten Students Prefer

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For parents and educators, “gaming” has become a dirty word. It’s the verb that’s synonymous with frittering away hours in front of a computer or PlayStation—three billion hours a week worldwide! And all of those hours come at the expense of homework, organized activities, or even just old-fashioned socializing.

That’s why a new trend, the gamification of education, has such potential. It promises to harness this same power in the name of learning. What if algebra could be as enticing as Call of Duty or earth science was as addicting as World of Warcraft? It’s appealing to anyone looking for the easy way to study.

This might sound too good to be true, but according to some educators it’s the wave of the future. It works because many of the same concepts that make video games so alluring – progression, levels and point systems, and loss aversion, to name a few – can be applied in the classroom as well.

In fact, this concept isn’t entirely new. Thirty years ago, students were pushed to brush up on their geography and history in order to track down the elusive Carmen Sandiego. Shortly thereafter, Mavis Beacon gamified touch typing and grade schoolers navigated the universe while learning their times tables in Math Blaster.

In order to see how we can bring this trend up to date, let’s investigate some of the specific elements of the gamification of education, and look at examples of how each can be implemented.

The Elements of Gamification

Progression is the technique of giving students a metric with which to measure their progress. If a gamer is on level 14, and needs 5,000 experience points to get to level 15, she knows exactly where she is in her progress and what she needs to do.

A great way to incorporate progression into education is by creating paths that students can follow toward an end goal. Each milestone should be a requirement in order to reach the next. For example, if a class were studying the Roman Empire, students could be required to pass a quiz on each era in order to get to the next.

Progress could be tracked electronically or just with poster board and markers. A certain number of points could be accumulated throughout the course of the semester, and students could reach new levels based on their accumulation of points. What’s more, students can “unlock” rewards for certain levels like a night free of homework or class-wide party.

In addition to linear progression, as outlined above, there is also alternative progression. This means that if there are ten tasks to be completed, they don’t need to be done in any particular order. In the class studying the Roman Empire, quizzes could each cover a region. This way students could have the freedom to choose what their progression looks like.

Investment is a way to make students feel attached to and proud of the work they accomplish. Shared buy-in through collaborative work, recognizing achievements publicly, or building a narrative filled with meaning can all be good ways to build investment.

In an academic setting, a good way to create investment is by reframing the classic classwork/homework structure. By changing some of the language and terminology, students can gain a whole new perspective. If a group project becomes a “quest” that students must complete in order to advance, they might be a little more enthusiastic than usual.

Liz Kolb, a teacher and professor at the University of Michigan, found that breaking down a one-hour assignment into three mini 20-minute quests had excellent results. Each of these short learning activities was manageable, and positive reinforcement in the form of “experience points” was given for completing each one.

Another way to have students buying into school is through badges. Though this may sound a little too close to kindergarten-style gold stars to some, a number of teachers have been surprised by how effective they can be, even for middle school and junior high students. Everyone wants to be recognized for their accomplishments!

Cascading Information Theory is the idea that unlocking certain snippets of information should be necessary for advancement to the next stage or level. Using this method, students are encouraged to continually strive to unlock more information.

One critical piece of this technique is “loss aversion.” Many electronic games require you to visit, or check in, every so often. Failing to do so will result in some sort of regression or loss of experience points. Similarly, teachers can implement a penalty for students who do not complete a certain task (say a basic quest or quiz) every week. It’s the stick in gamification.

On the flip side, students can receive bonuses for completing their tasks on time. If a student doesn’t miss a single assignment for an entire month, he could receive experience points or levels that are redeemable for rewards. This incentivizes consistency, and keeps students on task over an extended period of time.

In fact, if students are split into small groups, each with a lead facilitator, it’s possible to have them keep track of their own progress. Lead facilitators can then submit their results to the teacher at the end of each week or month. For teachers, it’s the easy way to track—for students, it’s the easy way to study.

And It’s Already Working!

Gamification isn’t just a theory. It’s already been put to practice in a number of places. Non-traditional educational environments, like SuperCamp, have paved the way for this technique. The results have been phenomenal, with 80 percent of learners saying that they prefer gamification to traditional learning and 89 percent saying that a point system has increased their engagement with academic material.

In my own experience as an educator, reframing lessons and making them part of a bigger fun narrative has always produced incredible results. To this end, many of the activities our students participate in are off of the beaten track. Instead of simply having students discuss strategies for overcoming obstacles, we have them write those obstacles down on a block of wood and then karate chop through them!

By creating a new narrative, we actually rewire the way students think about learning. As I’ve discussed previously, one of the keys to breaking a student out of a rut is by rewiring neural pathways. Put more simply, students start to associate learning with fun, and neurons fire and wire themselves to affirm this association.

I strongly believe that education will continue to use these techniques taken from gaming to build student buy-in and enthusiasm. It’s time that educators and parents see that gaming isn’t just for Xboxes and Nintendos. It’s for math, science, and history as well.