How to Engage the Students Who Need It Most: Gamification

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Gamification is using the game mechanics that kids love in video games and infusing them into your classroom. In a good gamified classroom, mechanics like layered leaderboards, badges/achievements, experience points (xp) grading, blended learning, and a class store are common. Far too often, though, I hear gamification being talked about as a magic bullet. It isn’t.

The truth about gamification

Two years ago, I received an email from a parent who wanted to know why her daughter, future class valedictorian, was learning in a classroom that was a videogame; her daughter didn’t need all the “extra stuff” and asked that I just teach like a “normal” teacher. I wrote back that she was right: her daughter didn’t need a gamified classroom to be successful. She would be successful no matter what system she was put in. But there were many other kids in her class that were not only enjoying gamification, but benefiting from the increased engagement and motivation that an effective gamified system provides.

That’s the truth about gamification: it will not make your kids smarter or perform better on tests. Gamification is about increasing motivation and engagement. Once you have a kid’s attention, it is still up to the teacher to deliver a solid, meaningful lesson. Gamification is not a magic bullet, nor does every student need it, but the students who benefit the most from a gamified classroom just so happen to be the ones who most need motivation and engagement.

Which students does gamification really help?

Many studies like the ones done by The Kaiser Family Foundation, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Nielsen, and Northwestern University show both male and female students play a lot of video games. The studies also show minority students consistently play more video games (and spend more time with media in general) than their white counterparts, and that poor students game more than their more affluent counterparts, as video games are cost-effective entertainment. It is important to understand that the students who generally perform the worst in school--the economically disadvantaged, males, and minority students--often also play the most video games. Therefore gamification is most effective in engaging and motivating lower-achieving students, not in making your top students perform better. In other words, it is about bringing the bottom of your class up.

My own data reflects this theory of motivating the lower-achieving students. Before I gamified my 10th grade English class, girls averaged an 85 for the year and boys averaged a 79. White students averaged an 82, while minority students averaged a 79. In the past two years of post-gamification data, girls averaged a 91 and boys averaged an 85. White students averaged an 88, while minority students averaged an 86. That’s an increase by at least 6 points--over half of a letter grade--for all groups.

I know gamification played a big part in increasing students’ willingness to show up and work hard because I polled my kids every two weeks last year. By the end of the year, 85% of my students reported that they were more likely to come to school if they had my class on that day, and 92% reported that they would rather learn in a gamified class than a traditional class. 100% reported that they enjoyed coming to my class. Gamification motivated kids to come to school, and once they were there, gamification helped engage them and make learning more fun.

The truth about gamification is that it is just another weapon in a teacher’s arsenal, not a magic bullet to solve all your problems. When done well, I believe a gamified classroom better motivates and engages struggling students than a traditional classroom does. The game mechanics found in a good gamified classroom raise a struggling student’s self-esteem, and provide an extra layer of engagement that might not otherwise exist. Your best, brightest student may enjoy learning in a gamified class, but they don’t need it. Those students will be successful no matter what system they’re in. If you deploy gamification in your class, it is important to understand whom it will best serve: the students who need it the most.

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