The Why’s and How’s of Gamifying Your Classroom

Game-Based Learning

The Why’s and How’s of Gamifying Your Classroom

By Scott Haselwood     Dec 12, 2014

The Why’s and How’s of Gamifying Your Classroom

This article is part of the guide: From School to Shining School: 52 Stories from Educators Across the U.S.

Three years ago I flipped my high school math classes, but wasn’t satisfied. Having heard about mastery-based learning, I wanted to move my classes in that direction. But I could not figure out how to make that step work for me; I wanted to make this move fun and exciting, get away from old and boring.

Enter gamification.

The “Why” of Gamification

When I was in a session at ISTE 2014, three years of thinking clicked into place. Taking some of those elements that keep us playing Angry Birds, or Plants vs. Zombies, or Skyrim and adding them to my classroom made sense. Why can’t teaching and learning be just like playing a game? You know--get a reward for doing what you are supposed to do, with the option to fail safely?

Starting with the premise that failure is an option (something that I’ve written about), I started the journey to gamification in my classroom. Think about some of the games that you play: solitaire, Sorry, even Texas Hold ‘Em--you don’t win every time you play. Yet, you keep going.

As teachers we all know that our students are unique and bring different learning styles and personalities to the classroom. I wanted to tap into this naturally by allowing the students to learn at their own pace. Some students pick up on different things at different rates, and gamifying gives those students the opportunity to do this--without penalty.

The “How” of Gamification

Let’s start from the beginning.

After deciding that I was going to take this step in the flipped class/mastery class process, I first created a “system” that would work for me and my students.

Setting up the gamified strategies

I teach high school Pre-AP Precalculus and regular Calculus. My processes needed to appeal to teenagers and be fun for them to participate in, and creating this took some time. By really investigating the games that I enjoy playing and was comfortable with, I determined that I needed two distinct systems: A “Character Level Up” and a “Market.”

  • Character Level Up allows the students to choose a path to follow, and different paths have different characteristics. This leveling up system is easy to use, because as the students move through different “quests” (think Units), they earn badges. The badges are easy to keep up with in a classroom management system like Edmodo; students get a badge when they complete a “save checkpoint” (quiz) or win a “boss fight” (unit test).
  • The Market is a place where students could purchase unique items or “power-ups” to use in class, like Divine Intervention (students work together on a test), TARDIS (students can retake any test), or Potion of Wisdom (students can ask the teachers a question on a test).

Tracking student grades and progress

Once those systems were in place, I needed to develop a way to keep track of all of this without going crazy and working even more. First up, a long-term plan. I outlined what students needed to accomplish through the entire school year, the system set-ups, the rewards, and the market in a Google Doc (see it here).

Next up, grades. Grades are kept in the official gradebook, and once a student completes a certain quest, they get to pick their path or level up their character. During this process, students earn points on everything that they do, just like a game. (I do not take points away!) They have to earn 80% on each “save checkpoint” and “boss fight” to move on; homework just needs to be completed and shown to me.

Sure, grading can get overwhelming--especially when it comes to collaborative work. In class, the students work in groups on everything except the boss fight, with no groups larger than four. When students take a checkpoint, they work in their group, and each individual turns in a paper. Boss fights are scheduled with me and can happen during class time, which can mean that my classroom is chaotic and busy. But that’s a good thing, and I’m constantly grading instead of tackling big chunks every so often--that way, it doesn’t pile up.

Last, but not least, the most difficult part was making it as easy as possible for me to keep up with where students were in their progress, and who earned rewards. To do that, I created a Google Form that had all of the activity options for the students on it. Each time students do something they are supposed to do (create, blog, backchannel chat, or do homework), they submit the form. And if they go above and beyond, they earn one of those “Market” rewards. I needed to sort all of this data--and I am not a spreadsheet user at all--but with the help of an accounting friend, I have a spreadsheet set up to organize the credits that the students can spend.


I am only one semester into this journey, and it has been very exciting to see all of the different things that the students have done. In fact, I have blogged about it several times: here, here, here, and here. But because this is also my first foray into the gamification classroom model, there are definitely some things that I can improve on and some things that I have struggled with. Here are some of those issues:

  1. The students have not been as active in my Market as I had hoped they would be. This could be from a variety of things--pricing, or the items are not things the students want. One student suggested that some of the items were too good to use, meaning that it was so powerful that you held onto it forever, not wanting to waste it.
  2. Some students work hard, get ahead, then sit around and waste class time (or waste time, then work like crazy). The epic struggle with students continues--this system will not solve those problems. It falls on me to get those students who don’t want to work to be inspired to. But it can be difficult to spot this quick enough to squash.
  3. As creative as my students have been, I feel like they could have created even more. They worked really hard during class, but I was imagining students working on things at home, as well. Students were amazing during class (some even worked on things during their lunch time) but getting them to do this more, or to take time at home or someplace fun has been challenging.
  4. Sometimes the students feel overwhelmed with everything that is going on in class. Creating a generic game board that allows the students to track their progress would help. They can see when they are approaching a level up or an automatic item drop. This would give them a big picture view and allow them to see what is right in front of them.

I have loved this journey and look forward to what comes next. Stay tuned and be sure to ask questions and share ideas--that is where our learning occurs!

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Oklahoma).

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