For many students, the traditional classroom setting can feel like an uninspiring environment. Long lectures, repetitive tasks, and a focus on exams often leave young minds disengaged, craving a more dynamic way to learn. This is where gamification becomes key. By using elements commonly found in games into the educational process, we can add a layer of excitement and competition that captures students’ attention. In doing so, gamification can make learning more enjoyable for everyone involved. Although more research is still needed, studies about using gamification in both primary and secondary schools, as well as in higher education, have increased over time.
Gamification in education connects to the use of game-like elements, like earning points, achieving levels, and competing with others in a virtual learning setting. The reason many teachers are using gamification is to make the learning more interactive and enjoyable, which can encourage students to engage more deeply with the material. In this article, we are going to look at several aspects of this teaching strategy. First, we will look into how gamification came to be and where it comes from. Next, we are going to discuss why this approach has received attention and why it can be a beneficial method for teaching. Subsequently, we will give some advice for teachers who want to use gamification in their classrooms, and throughout the article we will also highlight important points to be careful about when incorporating game-like elements into your teaching (4).
Although the word ‘gamification’ was first officially used in 2008, the idea of using games to enhance learning has a much longer history. Teachers have always known the value of making learning more fun through interactive elements. For example, we can look back to the educational board games of the 20th century, like ‘Math Bingo,’ which made learning arithmetic more engaging for children. These games created the foundations for what we now describe as gamification, which proves that the connection between education and play is not a new idea, but rather an evolving practice.
Today, gamification has found a firm place in modern classrooms to enhance the learning experience. Teachers use it to spark interest and sustain engagement among students. For instance, some educators make use of apps that let students earn points or badges for completing assignments or participating in class discussions. Another example is setting up a class leaderboard to encourage a sense of competition and achievement. Beyond the digital realm, gamification can also be applied in a traditional classroom through team-based learning activities and role-playing exercises. The core idea is to make the educational journey more interactive and enjoyable, making it easier for students to absorb and retain information.
What is gamification?
Gamification in education involves using game mechanics like point-scoring and rewards to make learning more engaging and fun. By tapping into students’ natural desire for competition and achievement, gamification aims to create meaningful learning experiences. The goal is to boost motivation, improve material retention, and encourage active participation through immediate feedback.
One of the key strengths of gamification is its ability to boost both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from the joy and satisfaction one feels while doing the activity itself, while extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards like grades or badges. Gamification engages intrinsic motivation by making learning activities more fun and interesting, inspiring students to engage for the sheer joy of learning. On the extrinsic side, game elements like points offer tangible rewards, encouraging students to reach specific goals. By catering to both types of motivation, gamification provides a well-rounded approach to encouraging student engagement and learning (2).
Another advantage of using gamification in education is the way that it can engage students who have grown up playing video games. This approach takes the fun parts of good games and mixes them into the learning process. The aim is not for students to learn by playing specific games, but instead it is to create a learning environment that feels as engaging as playing a game. Through this, teachers can create connections between students’ love for gaming and their learning, which can mean that the classroom becomes a more relatable and stimulating space.
What Gamification is Not
The term ‘gamification’ is often misunderstood, partly because people might associate it directly with video game culture. Some might think it means turning the classroom into a video game, or they may confuse it with game-based learning. This can be because their understanding of the term relies heavily on their own experiences of video games, leading to misunderstandings about what gamification in an educational context actually involves. It is not about converting the entire educational process into a game, but about using game-like elements to enrich the traditional learning environment (1).
It is important to point out that game-based learning and gamification are not exactly the same thing, although they do share similarities. Game-based learning involves the use of actual games, either custom-designed or commercially available, with educational content to help students learn specific skills or knowledge. In contrast, gamification takes elements from games and incorporates them into traditional educational settings. While game-based learning focuses on learning through actual games, gamification aims to make the regular classroom experience more game-like to engage students. Both approaches are designed in order to make learning more interactive and enjoyable, but they do this in slightly different ways (5).
Badges, points, and rewards
Successful gamification goes beyond just sprinkling badges, points, or leaderboards into a classroom setting and expecting better learning outcomes. The reason students enjoy games is not solely for the points. It is also about the joy of the gameplay, the immediate feedback, and the satisfaction that comes from mastering a challenge. However, if gamification is poorly executed or the learning tasks are not thoughtfully designed, the entire effort to make the classroom more interactive could fall flat. With this in mind, the remainder of this article will focus on guiding teachers in creating meaningful and effective learning experiences through gamification (3).
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
Common Elements for Successful Classroom Gamification
When it comes to incorporating gamification into the classroom, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What proves effective for one group of students may not give the same results for another. Successful implementation requires careful planning, a deep understanding of your students, and an awareness of the specific learning context. It is also important to be open to experimentation, to reflect on the outcomes, and to make adjustments as needed, and while there is growing interest and research in this area, it is still an emerging field, meaning teachers should approach gamification as a dynamic tool that requires ongoing adaptation.
Researchers in the fields of game-based learning and gamification often employ varying terminology for comparable game elements. However, four elements have shown consistent success when implemented in educational settings.
Freedom to Fail
One of the most powerful aspects of gamification in the classroom is the concept of ‘freedom to fail.’ Traditional educational models often penalize mistakes, which can create stress for students. But a gamified classroom turns this on its head, reframing failure as an important step in the learning journey. This encourages a mindset where students feel free to experiment, take risks, and understand that setbacks are just stepping stones to mastering a skill.
This principle is heavily inspired by video game design, where players are offered multiple lives and the chance to start over from a check-point rather than from scratch. In the classroom, this not only keeps motivation high but also fuels a spirit of persistence and problem-solving. Another important facet related to ‘freedom to fail’ is the ‘freedom to choose,’ allowing students to decide their own learning paths to achieve their goals.
The teacher plays an important role in establishing this forgiving and exploratory learning atmosphere. By emphasizing that getting things wrong is part of the educational process, teachers set a tone that mistakes are not just acceptable but expected as part of growth. Their reactions to students’ struggles can significantly shape how learners view their abilities and potential for future success.
Additionally, assessment methods can also be adapted to this approach. Regular, low-stakes evaluations, like ungraded quizzes or peer explanations, can help gauge understanding without the pressure of grades. Offering students varied options for demonstrating skill mastery is another way to implement ‘freedom to choose.’ For instance, a teacher might offer a selection of spelling tasks to be completed during the week. Each task has a point value, and students must accumulate enough points through tasks of their choice by the end of the week.
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Another vital element of gamification in education is immediate feedback. Quick, real-time responses to actions or decisions have numerous benefits in the learning process. They help students understand where they are doing well and where they need to improve, almost instantly. Immediate feedback helps maintain engagement, gives a sense of accomplishment, and can improve the rate of learning by allowing quick course corrections.
Moreover, gamification is a natural fit for providing immediate feedback. Think about video games where players immediately know if they have successfully navigated a challenge or need to try again. In the classroom, technology can facilitate this. Educational software and apps often feature quiz modes where students get instant scores or explanations. Even simpler methods, like interactive clickers in a lecture, can give real-time feedback on whether students understand the material.
Gamification naturally supports the offering of immediate feedback, but teachers also have a critical role in this process. They can use various modes to provide quick and meaningful responses. For instance, teachers can give immediate verbal feedback during interactive lessons or written comments on electronic submissions that students can view right away. Quick polls or hand-raising during a lesson can also serve as immediate checks on student understanding. These traditional methods, when combined with gamified elements, create a rich variety of immediate feedback opportunities that keep students engaged and motivated (6).
Leaderboards are another gamification tool that can provide immediate feedback while also driving motivation. However, it is important to use them wisely. Leaderboards can foster a sense of competition, but if not managed carefully, they can also create stress or discourage those who are not at the top. The key is to design leaderboards that celebrate progress and effort, rather than just top performance, to ensure that they contribute positively to the learning experience.
Another key element in the success of gamification is ‘progression.’ Much like in games where players start with simpler levels and move on to more challenging ones, educational settings can adopt a similar approach. In general, the motivation to learn increases when students can see their progression over time, tracking their growth and setting realistic goals for themselves.
This principle closely aligns with Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the concept of ‘scaffolding.’ In educational theory, ZPD is the range of tasks too difficult for students to do alone but achievable with some guidance, while scaffolding refers to the support given to students to help them cross this zone. In a gamified setting, the progressive nature of tasks serves as built-in scaffolding. As students complete simpler tasks, they gain the confidence and skills to tackle more challenging ones, all while being supported by the teacher and the educational tools at their disposal. This way, gamification helps students progress through their ZPD, maintaining high motivation levels and a sense of accomplishment.
Storytelling is another powerful aspect that can be built into gamification. Narratives have always been a captivating way to engage people and pass along information. In games, storytelling can provide context and convert objectives into enjoyable quests. When used in the classroom, storytelling has the power to make educational content more engaging and meaningful.
For instance, imagine a biology class structured around the concept of a medical mystery. In this example, the classroom serves as the ‘setting,’ the students become ‘medical detectives,’ and the teacher acts as the ‘chief investigator.’ The ‘plot’ progresses as a mysterious disease outbreak, with every class session bringing new ‘clues’ in the form of lessons on cells, viruses, or genetics. Students do not just study biology. They apply their knowledge to ‘solve’ the outbreak and save imaginary lives. This way, learning takes place in a context that is both relevant and exciting for the students, showing that stories do not have to be fantasy-based to be effective.
Furthermore, stories also naturally lend themselves to the idea of progression and scaffolding. As students make their way through a ‘story,’ they meet increasingly complex challenges or tasks, similar to the levels in a game. This progression helps keep students motivated and focused, as they are not just ‘doing exercises’ but moving through a narrative that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
See also: Instructional Design Models and Theories
Gamification has the power to transform the traditional educational setting by making learning more interactive and engaging. It is more than just adding badges and leaderboards to classroom activities. It is about fundamentally changing how we approach education to better cater to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. From giving students the freedom to fail and choose, to providing immediate feedback and a sense of progression, gamification offers a set of tools to help educators enhance the learning experience. Additionally, adding storytelling elements can further enrich this experience, making the material more relatable and the learning journey more meaningful. While it is crucial to avoid misunderstandings and implement this approach thoughtfully, the potential benefits make gamification an exciting method for improving student engagement and learning outcomes. As with any educational strategy, it is important for teachers to be mindful of their students’ unique needs and be willing to adapt and evolve their methods for the most effective outcomes.
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- Dichev, C. & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 14(9).doi 10.1186/s41239-017-0042-5
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- Tu, Ch-H., Cherng-Jyh, Y., Sujo-Montes, L., & Roberts, G. (2015). Gaming personality and game dynamics in online discussion introductions. Educational Media International, 52(3), 155-172. doi:10.1080/09523987.2015.1075099
- Smiderle, R., Rigo, S.J., Marques, L.B. et al. The impact of gamification on students’ learning, engagement and behavior based on their personality traits. Smart Learn. Environ. 7, 3 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-019-0098-x