Teachers and parents hear it over and over again: “make learning fun” to keep kids engaged. Gamified education apps for use outside of the classroom have proliferated, leading students to expect gamification when they’re back inside of the classroom, too. ABCmouse is one great example for the youngest of students. Just recently, Google announced Grasshopper, an app that teaches coding to beginners, offering lessons through puzzles that make the topic seem less intimidating.
Discussing the benefits of gamification for learning and retention is a tricky topic because doing it successfully requires a delicate balance of science and art. It’s not easy to build something that is both entertaining and educational. Combine people’s short attention spans with an obvious reliance on technology and personal devices, however, and the argument for gamification as a constructive learning technique is one worth paying attention to.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to education; but a major advantage of gamification is that it can increase engagement and spark motivation.
Learning before entertainment
The priority for creating an effective education-based game should be on the design of the learning dimensions first, and the entertainment value second. As a whole, this process needs to ensure focus on the core learning objective, and the gamification aspect (i.e., points, rewards, etc.) should support that goal. An intelligently-structured game serves up the information, identifies comprehension and difficulties, and knows how and when to proceed so that students are actually learning the material, rather than just filling time.
Of note, well-designed game experience should avoid rewarding players for guessing. Think of the problem-solving skills you encourage when a player must start a game level over to figure out what they did incorrectly, rather than serve them up answers until they click on the correct path simply based on process of elimination.
Education is sharing
Collaborative game experiences are key. According to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation, collaborative learning not only helps promote understanding of diverse perspectives, but also serves as preparation for future social and employment situations.
On the flip side, games based solely on speed tend to favor a small percentage of students that are good at answering questions quickly, leaving the rest of the student body out of the loop and unmotivated. Speed doesn’t directly equate to knowledge or success. So while it’s not bad that speed is part of the gameplay, attention should be made to its balance in order for all players to feel they are part of the journey.
Help your teachers
Teachers need to be properly equipped. They can’t effectively gamify their classrooms if they don’t know how to best use the tools. Learning resources are only as good as the educators who put them to use. And if teachers’ eyes are not on the prize – as in, they don’t know what goal they are trying to achieve – the game won’t accomplish the learning it’s intended to help facilitate. Educators bring a holistic view of the learning plan, and they are the ones who identify how gamification and technology can fit into that broader plan.
Gamification for confidence-building
There’s an interesting study called “I Play at Work” that talks about how playing games in the workplace not only helps with stress reduction but also boosts motivation and learning through a positive, more relaxed and supportive environment. Never too old to play games, right?
In education, teachers say the results from technology learning tools like collaborative in-class games are undeniable. One middle school teacher I’ve worked with found that through a combination of tech-enabled games and activities, both in the classroom and at home, struggling students’ test scores started to improve from failing grades (20s and 50s out of 100) to finishing the year with achievements in the 80s. Educational games can help students see growth and track their progress, which can build confidence when they see how far they’ve come.
By introducing gamification into classroom learning, we are, in theory, able to instill the same benefits yielded from the “I Play at Work” experiment at a young age: level-headed reactions in the face of challenges, the desire to self-learn, increased productivity and overall improved well-being.
Gamification for real-world problem-solving
“Hard skills” that students spend time learning today in school may be totally obsolete in five years. In the real world, knowing one specific programming language, to get a job as a developer, is less helpful than knowing how to approach problem solving like an engineer and being able to adapt and learn along the way.
One of the most vital benefits of gamification is its ability to provide variety for teaching students how to learn and how to think. Through a healthy dose of competition and the satisfaction of beating a level, gamification is encouraging students to be curious, think critically and collaborate with one another, especially when the game involves teams. With all the indicators in today’s world telling us to stay nimble, these are vital skills we need to be teaching.
Especially in the modern era of “fake news,” it’s imperative that we provide students with every opportunity to practice analyzing information, instead of regurgitating it. Lighthearted games give learners a safe space to fail, while subtly encouraging them to actively consider and retain information in a way that doesn’t seem dry or daunting.
Gamification in the classroom has made it more acceptable for educators to creatively change up the routine, and for students to be energetic and engaged at school. Games do an outstanding job of exciting students about a topic and building their confidence. However, they are still only part of an overall toolbox; games are not a replacement for the full curriculum or for the requirement of students to put effort into learning.
Ultimately, gamification is most successful when the technological foundation is well-built, when it’s used to achieve well-understood goals, and if the experience is led by a motivated, equipped educator. It’s exciting that we’re part of an era where learning apps and games are available, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Matthew Glotzbach is the CEO of Quizlet, the largest user-generated consumer learning platform in the U.S., using activities and games to help students practice and master what they’re learning.