Game on for coding

Gamification is about more than making boring subjects ‘fun,’ it’s about student engagement, says 3P Learning’s Jayne Warburton

In your experience, how can gamification enhance teaching and learning in the classroom? What are the proven benefits?

Games are powerful motivators and integrating them into education gives educators another tool in their resource box to get students learning – and crucially, to love learning! Gamification’s main goal is to raise the levels of engagement of learners by using game-like techniques such as scoreboards and personalised instant feedback.

Gamification does not simply imply creating a game. It means making education more fun and engaging, without diminishing or undermining pedagogical credibility. It helps learners gain motivation towards studying and because of the positive feedback, they get pushed forwards and become more interested and stimulated to learn.

Engagement is the important metric for success in gamification.  Gamification is about more than making boring subjects “fun” – though this is a common perception. It’s more accurate to say that gamification is about engagement. It works largely by providing instant feedback – quickly rewarding even the smallest level of progress.

We know (and teachers are constantly telling us) that “game” based digital resources (such as Mathletics and Reading Eggs) boost learners’ motivation – and thereby their learning – by leveraging cognitive, emotional and social needs. The narrative of a game helps achieve mastery in challenging academic tasks, simultaneously invoking emotions such as pride and frustration, whilst also allowing learners to test out new social identities that grant them academic kudos. 

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate learners to achieve their goals.  Incentives are dangled in front of the learner at regular intervals – increasing motivation.  Learners can earn gold bars, points, certificates and other rewards, but it’s more complex than just incorporating points and badges to the classroom environment. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with extrinsic motivation, educators really need to combine that with attempts to engender intrinsic motivation too – getting students to love learning and see themselves as successful at what they do.

There is also a positive bias toward constant learning – the more the student knows about the subject (i.e., mathematical concepts), the better they become at the game. Gamified learning creates an intrinsic motivation to learn more – you have to keep learning to get to the next level and earn the next reward.

There’s something within ‘games’ that fulfil real human needs. Not only that, they’re designed upon sound psychological principles – they’re engaging and can be adapted to learners’ individual skill levels, allowing them to solve problems and receive recognition for their efforts. Furthermore, ‘gamers’ regularly demonstrate persistence, risk taking, reasoning and problem-solving – all behaviours that, if you asked any teacher, ideally would be regularly demonstrated at school. 

Games are especially useful in helping students overcome their fear of ‘failure’. In fact, many games require players to ‘fail’ repeatedly until the correct answer is found. They can also offer non-overt differentiated learning, in such a way that learners need not be aware of the level at which they are working, thus not negatively impacting on their self-esteem.  Plus, unlike traditional exams, games give constant feedback and keep the stakes low. 

Another important point to note is that there’s a fundamental difference between games designed to teach and games where you learn. In the former, learners perceive that they are being lectured to, while in the latter, they are actually having fun and just happen to learn, almost as a by-product (consider it learning ‘by stealth’!)

Would you say the UK is keeping up with other countries when it comes to using gaming for learning?

Yes!  Although it is currently fashionable to regard the UK unfavourably academically in comparison to other nations, in terms of PISA tables, numeracy levels and the like, I believe that the UK is very much at the head of the curve when it comes to the gamification of learning and the use of digital education resources in general (along with Australia and increasingly North America and Canada).

If a school has never tried gamification before, how would you recommend they try it out/introduce it to a class? 

There are all sorts of ways.  Many suppliers offer free trials of their digital resources or “freemium” options ahead of purchasing a fully functional version, so it is possible to dip your toe without expending any budget. Events such as the World Education Games or the recent Chemical Reaction Challenge also offer schools a totally free way of introducing the concept and create a real buzz at the same time.

This time of year can be a great time for schools to explore gamification.  Once the dreaded SATs are over, the summer term can often feel like a slow rundown to the summer break, so why not take the opportunity to try out various digital resources?  It can be particularly beneficial when suppliers sometimes offer extended subscriptions over the holidays to help offset summer “learning loss”.

Other options are to select a resource and run an in-school maths or literacy week, running a competition to see who can answer the most maths questions correctly or read the most eBooks, or complete the most interactive lessons or quizzes.

Are teachers still hesitant to blur the lines between ‘learn time’ and ‘play time?’

I think that can sometimes be the case, yes, but increasingly we are seeing a new breed of 21st century teachers who appreciate that today’s learning environment can benefit from a variety of tools and resources, adopting a blended approach to teaching and learning.  Gamification can be particularly useful when it is based on curriculum content that can be used to consolidate learning in the classroom.

Also, gamification has received a fair amount of criticism. Some have decried it as tool for implementing ‘carrot-and-stick’ behaviourism, suggesting that the game is just a reward and punishment system with icing. Others state that students should be motivated by the desire to learn, not by some external tool (easier said than done often!) We also hear that games breed competition (but teachers tell us that is a positive motivator!) or that they lead to students learning about the game per se, rather than the underlying course matter.

However, gamification can be particularly powerful when it is based on curriculum content that can be used to consolidate learning in the classroom and there is now a good range of robust, pedagogically sound resources available that certainly offer “gamification” – but based on high quality, comprehensive, core curriculum content.

Will we see more of this teaching technique in the months ahead? How do you think it will develop? 

With the UK schoolchildren of today being the first generation of ‘digital natives’ and with many classrooms equipping pupils 1:1 with tablet devices or running “Bring Your Own Device” schemes, it is inevitable that gamification will increasingly feature in e-learning too. 

Tablet computers are fast becoming a preferred medium for teaching and learning – with devices such as the iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and LearnPad at the forefront.  When you also hear parents reporting that their pre-school children are seemingly completely iPad ‘literate’ and consider that today’s KS3 and KS4 students very much represent the  “Playstation generation,” you can only foresee a significant increase in uptake and deployment in both a school and home setting.


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