Why I Had to Develop a Unique Learner Profile to Meet the Needs of My...

Game-Based Learning

Why I Had to Develop a Unique Learner Profile to Meet the Needs of My Students

By Sean Arnold     Apr 4, 2018

Why I Had to Develop a Unique Learner Profile to Meet the Needs of My Students

As a special education teacher, I work with students who struggle academically. Many of them have a low tolerance for frustration—but the same kid who gives up after trying a math problem once will watch Super Mario fall into a hole a dozen times and try again a thirteenth time to get it right. Why is that? And why isn’t learning the same way?

This may sound like some trite aphorism, but every learner is unique. Working with students with special needs for over 13 years, I can attest that the adage, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met but one person with autism," holds true about the individuality of all learners. I’ve learned that I need to know my students academically and personally so I can modify instruction to be as effective, engaging and rigorous as possible, so every year I craft personal learner profiles for my students that go beyond their IEP goals and basic personality surveys.

Over the years I’ve become familiar with the ideas and theories commonly advocated for in special education practice. Carol Ann Tomlinson's work on differentiated instruction and Benjamin Bloom's work with mastery learning have shaped my understanding of how to meet the needs of each learner. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and B.F. Skinner's behaviorism have informed how I respond to different behaviors. John Dewey encouraged me to make all activities meaningful, while Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert inspired me to use hands-on learning. And the work of Anthony Gregorc and Neil Fleming on learning styles and Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences remind me that all children are capable of growth.

There are limitations to many of these instructional ideologies though, and one alone is insufficient. Some only address student cognition while others look at personality. A few focus on broad perspectives regarding moral questions in education while others are myopic.

With experience, I came to recognize that for my students to be successful, I needed to engagingly address academic essentials while recognizing individual student thought processes and interests. Playful learning, open-ended challenges and social activities seemed to captivate my students. Many of them chose to spend their time outside of school playing games, and it became clear that their love of games mirrored my own. A moment of inspiration came while observing my students as they played different types of games—they were fueled by various motivations. I thought, if I could identify what motivated them during play, I could tap into that during learning.

Playful Learning

Image Credit: Sean Arnold

There are a number of reasons I use games for instruction, but the most compelling is the power games have to shift student incentives and redefine failure. As far as motivation, students might initially be drawn in by scoreboards and badges, but their attention is maintained through the challenging, fun and social aspects of the game. My student who lacked perseverance in math stuck around to get Super Mario out of the hole because the game was engaging and relevant for him.

I wanted to bring that kind of motivation to my classroom so I started transforming it into a learning environment where nearly all elements were part of a larger game, and I developed a collection of assessments and surveys to learn more about my students.

In 2010, I prioritized incorporating elements of play into teaching and learning. I thought more concretely about how to engage my students through games and developed a system that permeated all aspects of the class. Whether we were creating keynotes about historical figures, learning about fractions or creating a digital story, students were doing it playfully.

When the year started, every student created a persona for the game and created trading cards listing their attributes based on the assessments and surveys. This exercise tied into a curricular and behavior system in which characters earned points and digital badges (instead of grades), and could earn rewards based on completing quests and challenges (instead of assignments). Characters could level-up to earn special in-class privileges. During many lessons, we played learning games within the larger context of the class game. I began to “gamify” my classroom before I had ever heard that word.

My intent with this shift in practice was to get to know my students in a deeper way. Not just whether they preferred math or history, or if they learned better through reading or listening—I wanted to understand their motivations, personality traits, academic and non-academic strengths and areas for growth. I didn’t get all that from gamifying my lesson plans. But my efforts were met with success as student behaviors improved and they mastered increasingly complex skills.

To understand my learners more deeply, I still had work to do. My next step was to create functional learning profiles that students could relate to, so I needed a way to organize students based on the motivations and goals determined through those early evaluations.

Developing Gamer Profiles

Early in 2012, I started building a structure based on Richard Bartle's taxonomy of player types, a framework for categorizing different kinds of players to guide game designers. Bartle's work was intended to serve as a model for text-based adventures and multiplayer online games, but it had a lot in common with other universally recognized temperament scales like Myers and Briggs Personality Types and Keirsey's Four Temperaments.

They are not perfectly symmetrical, but the correlations are difficult to ignore and I wasn’t the only one to notice. The structure has evolved over the past six years to combine elements of all three models and the diagram below is something I now use to get to know my students, and to help them get to know themselves and each other.

I created the diagram to improve my understanding of my student’s play preferences so I could include their gamer personality with their character cards and we could use what we learned to inform how we engaged in the game, or in our case, the class material. It includes four main categories and eight subcategories of player profile types. The geek in me is inclined to draw comparisons to other fantasy works like the four houses of Hogwarts and how Rowling must have also recognized some universal truth about personality types and our need to identify ourselves as part of a subgroup within a larger society.

Bartle defined the four main categories as achievers, explorers, socializers and killers. I’ve replaced the term killer with griefer, which in the gaming community, refers to a player who deliberately provokes others to spoil their enjoyment. Each player type has specific traits and is driven by unique goals which can be broken down into explicit motivations and implicit drivers.


Many teachers prefer this group of students as they are most likely to be motivated by good grades alone. They want status and to achieve the goals set forth in the rules of the game efficiently. This group seeks treasure whether it is gold, grades or knowledge and if they get a medal for a task that was sufficiently challenging, they are content.

Within this category are opportunists and planners. Opportunists master tasks to help them overcome challenges and prefer an easier route where they can avoid obstacles. Planners always have an objective with small tasks in service of the larger goal. They are motivated by rewards for each task they accomplish, and they require little support other than crafting goals and encouragement when a task becomes overly frustrating.


This group seeks novelty and grows weary of routine quickly, which can be exhausting for teachers, but these students often take lessons to new depths. Naturally inquisitive, they enjoy exploring new territory and learning new information. They poke holes in any ideas presented, but that’s because they want to learn. Sometimes they work collaboratively, but they frequently prefer independence.

Explorers includes hackers and scientists. Hackers let intuition lead them to create and explore their world at a deeper level. Scientists test their ideas about the world around them and there is always a method to their efforts. In games, they enjoy discovering a loophole for a reward, but more than that, they like explaining how they did it. My advice: don’t ever make anything to simple for this group because struggle is part of the draw for them.


Motivated most by relationships with their peers, these students seek out friends and connections to share their stories with. For them, winning is insignificant if it's in isolation.

This group includes friends and networkers. Friends form deep, lasting connections that can help them survive whatever struggles they encounter in the world. Networkers interact with others and try to increase their personal profile amongst their peers. These students thrive during collaborative work where success requires ongoing communication.


Rebels want to win at any cost and love to do so in opposition to their peers. These genuine competitors often challenge others to contests of skill and their tactical and creative inclinations usually lead them to victory.

While these students can be frustrating when railing against classroom rules, they have the potential to be revolutionaries, artists and innovators that can bring about change when they’re able to focus their energy

Rebels include griefers and politicians. Griefers are motivated by a sense of purpose and, though it isn't always altruistic, it can be. When it's not, they can be confrontational with a fearsome reputation as their goal. Politicians are more subtle in their manipulation of others with rewards in mind. They value reputation but will put forth a facade to maintain popularity amongst their peers. These students do best when presented with leadership opportunities and meaningful challenges.

Using the Gamer Profiles

I originally designed the diagram to be teacher-facing, but students like to use it too. If you walked into my classroom today, you’d likely hear us using language from the diagram during lessons and one-to-one conferences.

I’ve used the profiles to shape my lessons, goals and activities and to determine how to differentiate instructional content and medium. I’ve even used them to decide which student-facing tool might best support learning for a particular student. I’m constantly integrating the gamer profiles in new ways. In addition to the assessments, which were built on Google Forms, I’ve recently been using Thrively’s student interest surveys to gather data on temperament and interests.

Humans are complex and our motivations, while sometimes calculable, are often erratic and misunderstood. Understanding who we are and what motivates us is important because it can help us understand how we learn. Learner profiles can help, but only if they’re relatable.

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