Achievement Unlocked: Gaming the Classroom

If gamification seems like a hot topic in education, it’s because there’s a wealth of research on the positive cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social effects of playing video games. Current research explores not just how to appropriate the enormous appeal of video games, but also how to leverage them to make teaching and learning more powerful, more effective, and more efficient. The overarching question is how can we harness the power of video games to enhance educational goals, while avoiding some of the associated risks? A recent study took up the challenge; researchers implemented and evaluated a gamified learning experience (in this case, a Blackboard plug-in) in order to investigate some key social and motivational factors within a university setting.

Students in the gamified environment group performed better than the other groups on everything related to practical application of concepts. However, the same experimental group fared worse on participation and written assignments. The results indicate that gamification elements helped in the development of practical competencies, but seemed to hinder understanding of more theoretical concepts. This is more or less in line with previous research, which suggests that learning games foster high-order thinking, like problem-solving, rather than factual knowledge gains.

The study also examined motivation in the context of a rewards-based system; only about 32% found the gamified activities more motivating—about the same as the percentage of students who completed most of the gamified activities. The authors discuss some of the inherent problems with relying too heavily on extrinsic motivational factors like their rewards-based system: namely, that participants can feel manipulated or become overly dependent on the reward, both of which can reduce intrinsic motivation and greatly diminish knowledge transfer.

The study identified a few key problems with the experimental conditions. The Blackboard plug-in presented some usability and technical difficulties, which likely worked against the research objective to increase student motivation towards completing the optional exercises. Some students didn’t complete a few of the gamified elements, like uploading screenshots of their work—a process they described as “a waste of time”—while others reported uploading empty screenshots to obtain achievements without completing the work. Additional teacher effort was required to correct screenshots and provide feedback, because the process could not be automated.

This highlights the biggest issue with the gamified plug-in, or any non-automated gamified element in e-learning. Immediate feedback is a critical aspect of videogames; arguably, it’s what makes them so compelling and engaging. A lack of immediate feedback seems to be at odds with increasing motivation in a gamified learning environment, so a gamified learning model with delayed feedback seem unlikely to achieve a high level of engagement. However, the study presents alternatives for rapid, meaningful feedback (e.g., automated grading, unsupervised scoring systems, response-driven feedback approaches) and avenues for future research that may lead to successfully unlocking the power of video games in the classroom.

Domínguez, A., Saenz-de-Navarrete, J., De-Marcos, L., Fernández-Sanz, L., Pagés, C., & Martínez-Herráiz, J. J. (2013). Gamifying learning experiences: Practical implications and outcomes. Computers & Education, 63, 380-392.