Gamification in the classroom: what have we learned?

Shuhan Li and Olivia Sun share what they learned when testing out gamification strategies and technologies to tackle some of the challenges presented by online learning


6 Aug 2021
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Lessons from testing gamification strategies in online teaching

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 

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As the world went online during the pandemic, we decided to test out gamification strategies and technologies to tackle some of the challenges online learning presented. Introducing “gaming” elements into our classes boosted student engagement and sustained motivation through the social support, progress markers, and reward systems games provide – but it didn’t always work the way we’d imagined. We’d like to share lessons we learned along the way when we gamified our English for academic purposes (EAP) course.

Design the ‘game’ with students

Games are a medium for storytelling. Elements of the story include what the game tasks and rules are, how to achieve them and, most importantly, why the players are playing in the first place – the game’s purpose.

Normally, players aren’t involved in the process of game design – games are delivered to consumers ready to play. When gamifying learning, it’s tempting for teachers to write the story for the students, instead of with them. With an established curriculum, it’s natural to define the game objectives using learning outcomes and to order tasks and levels based on weekly lesson plans. In ordinary games outside the classroom, this isn’t an issue as the stories and tasks are inherently entertaining and fun – winning a race in a car game or defeating the enemy in a battle game. In an education setting, however, learning requires a significant amount of self-discipline and motivation even when we “gamify” it. Just because it’s a game, doesn’t mean it automatically has the same level of appeal as a game students play in their leisure time.

After experimentation, we found that negotiating game objectives and mechanics with students was an effective way to empower them and drive their motivation. In practice, this means that before implementing the game, teachers can discuss with their students what the tasks are, what the end result is, how players are ranked and what rewards they receive.

This is particularly important in using gamification for independent learning tasks, as individual learning goals and motivation can vary significantly by learners. Negotiating with learners in advance helps create multiple pathways that lead to different learning outcomes in game design. When students are involved in the process, they become personally invested in the game, and this results in a stronger commitment to playing the game, with students motivated to persevere and overcome challenges.

Getting lost in storylines: reflection is key

The goal of gamifying learning is to engage students and promote action. To keep players motivated, it is important to regularly reflect on the narrative of the game and remind learners of the game’s ultimate goals.

When we used gamification to support vocabulary learning as part of a language class, students easily lost focus among the different “storylines” of the class, which included daily practice of reading and writing skills, as well as cultural and grammar content covered in the textbook. What worked for us was to regularly remind students how vocabulary learning connects with other components of the class – reflecting on how the “storylines” worked in the big picture.

Reflecting on the progress of each student regularly is also beneficial. Just like the progress bar in regular games, teachers can play the role of game facilitator and help remind learners of their progress. Having a clear idea about which stage and level each student is at is important in supporting learners to stay motivated and to plan their future learning.

Discuss your ideas early

Gamification elements can bring big benefits to any classroom, but its successful implementation often requires the support of an institution’s education technology unit. An early discussion, preferably at the planning stage, between academics who want to try new teaching techniques and the institution’s educational technology and development unit, is useful for both parties.

Teachers can get advice and information on the range of technologies available at their institution and their suitability for proposed projects. At the same time education technology specialists can offer recommendations on best practice and explain how tools should be used in teaching and learning activities. In addition, these early meetings can prompt collaboration with colleagues in other parts of the institution. Learning from others who have done similar projects or joining forces with new colleagues can lead to greater innovation than one might achieve on one’s own.

Early conversations like this can also help educational technology and development units better understand teachers’ needs and pressure points, which can inform the planning and budgeting process.

Hide and seek: making support and materials accessible

By nature, people are forgetful, so it is important for universities to build resources that are accessible, systematic and easy to search. Our institution has built a knowledge-base platform to serve this purpose. On the platform, teachers can find guides ranging from general information about the technologies available to them with real examples on how they’re being used, to niche information such as how to configure a particular setting of a tool.

These resources support academics in building their teaching and learning activities toolkit through an easy-to-use system, supported by one-on-one consultations. After all, any institution can have cutting-edge technology but for it to benefit the students, their instructors need to be able to easily access the technology – and know how to use it.

Shuhan Li is an English for academic purposes lecturer at the English Language Centre and Olivia Sun is an educational technologist at the Centre for Educational Technology, both at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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