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Gamifying Education: Think Differently, Start Small

Child holds multi-sided die in classroomGamification, that is in education applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them learning the 3 Rs more fun and engaging, is more than just a buzzword, another task to check off.

Experts argue that it can improve learning and increase student focus, but only if teachers are willing to rethink, well, everything.

Many teachers who think they are gamifying the classroom aren’t really getting the full benefits of gamification, experts said.

“They may think they are doing gamification but they are not,” said expert and consultant Andrew Miller. They have leaderboards and contests. They’ll say ‘I do jeopardy. That’s a game.’ But it isn’t gamification.”

Gamification requires more than star charts and rewards. If you think it about, grades are already a leaderboard or badge of sorts.

And, those rewards – leaderboards, badges and even grades – can become a disincentive if the game, or learning process, isn’t done right in the first place, said Kevin Corbett, an eLearning developer.

“It’s not what you do. It’s how you do it,” Corbett said. “That’s the shift. It is not standing up and telling them what to do. You need to give them the ability to explore, cooperate and be expressive. Those are things that gaming brings.”

What makes games work

Gamification works in the classroom for lots of reasons. Kids are engaged, the risk of failure is reduced, and mastery through repetitive learning is encouraged.

“Our kids are playing games all of the time. They are doing it anyway. Let’s own the fact that there is something about games that attracts kids,” Miller said.


Games do engage players, at least effective ones do.

Classes that use game techniques can include missions or quests to engage students.

Setting up a task that students can fulfill themselves or through project-based learning, for example, can do this.

Gamification can help students understand what they are learning on a more personal level. For instance, when you play a video game you don’t say the character died. Rather, you say you did.

Games, done well, can help students understand logical questions, history and other lessons in a much more personal way.

Ask a question – what happened here 30 years ago – and set  your students loose with tools to discover the answers.


Failure is one key part of games that simply doesn’t exist in most educational settings. If a student fails an assignment they receive negative points and could fail the course.

But in games – think back to Pac-Man – failure is part of the plan. You can’t play forever. Your turn eventually ends. The ghosts eat you. And you put in another quarter to play again.

Reducing the risk in failure encourages students to keep trying, to master a skill.

“What happens is suddenly the cost of failure is reduced to next to nothing,” said researcher and education technology professor Seann Dikkers. “It introduces the idea of trying things, failing them and retrying them. It creates, essentially, scientific classes.”

Or, as Corbett put it “Every failure brings you closer to success.”

Adding failure begins to allow for self-directed mastery.

This can apply to writing, for example, through the use of Google Docs or other cloud-based word processing tool. These allow teachers to look in on a student’s work while it’s happening and offer feedback. Teachers can reward the process, increase learning and reduce failure.

Putting it all together

Failure, self-direction and engagement are just a few game techniques the can be brought into any classroom.

First, and most importantly, know what your goal is. Do you want to increase time on task? Collaboration? Create a visceral history experience? Improve writing?

Build whatever you do next around that, Corbett recommended.

Dikkers, Corbett and Miller each recommend that teachers don’t tackle all of gamification at once. Rather, teachers should start small.

Dikkers started in on gamification by having his students play the game so that they could become accustom to the concepts they’d work in in a history class.

Games can count as an introduction. They can act as extra credit. Just beginning to employ educational games is a way to improve engagement, begin to watch self-direction and permit safe failure.

This is game-based learning. Teachers ready to take the next step and gamify their classrooms should with a single lesson, Miller said.

Begin by making one lesson for one day a learning quest, gathering information or solving a problem as group, for example. Keep practicing.

As teachers become increasingly comfortable with game techniques in the classroom, expand quests to last through a section and eventually through a quarter.

The main thing is to get the students attention and increase their mastery.

Follow the experts:

Kevin Corbett’s website is Follow him on Twitter @kevin_corbett

Seann Dikkers’ website is Follow him on Twitter @SDikkers

Andrew K Miller’s website is Follow him on Twitter @betamiller

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