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Gamification in the Classroom: The Right Way or Wrong Way to Motivate Students?

Using rewards and points to motivate students may be compromising real classroom engagement and learning.

Found in: Teaching Strategies

What thoughts come to most students’ minds when they're asked about the Articles of Confederation? If they’re up on their civics, they'll know it was the first Constitution of the United States. Some will remember it as a primary source they used in a presentation. Others will only recall the Articles as a yellowed document printed in a textbook or posted online.

Matthew Farber’s eighth-grade history class may view the Articles as all these things, but the document to them also represents the failed first attempt to adopt a rule-sheet to govern a game creating a U.S. government.

“The way my students see it is that the Articles was this initial rule-sheet. The country play-tested it and it flopped, so the founders replaced it with the United States Constitution, a much more detailed and effective set of instructions. The Bill of Rights then became the rules,” explains Farber.

“My students can look at anything as a game,” he adds. This, says Farber, opens the door for teachers to start thinking of themselves as game designers. Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, N.J. He is also an adjunct instructor for the New Jersey City University Educational Technology Department. He is among the growing legions of educators across the country who are bringing game dynamics—competition, collaboration, points, leaderboards, and badges—into the classroom.

“A class debate, when you think about it, is really just a game,” insists Farber. “When you debate, you compete, you win points. What social studies teacher hasn't used debate to engage and motivate students?

Matthew Farber

Matthew Farber

It’s a challenge for any teacher—especially ones who are new to the profession—to capture and sustain student interest. But are all strategies to motivate and engage created equal? This is one of the key questions as “gamification” takes hold in more classrooms across the country, and excited teachers spread good news about heightened levels of student motivation. But skeptics are wary about how gamification is being practiced, and question the value of what they see as outward motivators to bolster student attention and engagement.

“As educators, we may be conceding that learning isn’t inherently meaningful,” warns John Spencer, a teacher and education writer in Phoenix.

This is gamification’s message, according to Spencer, or at least how it is often defined and practiced: “We’re not going to embrace the fun, the creativity, the challenge, or the critical thinking. We’re just going to give you a badge instead.”

Gamification: Motivation or Pavlovian Response?

Rewards, points, badges, and other extrinsic motivators are key ingredients of gamification, particularly in the private sector, where the concept has been popularized. In 2011, the term made the short list in Oxford Dictionary's “Word of the Year,” which defines gamification as “the application of typical elements of game playing to other areas of activity.”  In other words, you're not necessarily playing a game, but you are using the things that make a game motivating and enticing to achieve another goal.

Gamification is a popular business marketing strategy. Think of the reward program at Starbucks, or the Nike+ Fuelband, which allows users to set fitness goals, track physical activity and energy burned, and compare results with other users. Both companies’ concepts rely on outside motivators, and have increased brand loyalty.

It’s more difficult to transfer experience to the classroom. On the surface, gamification in the classroom sounds like an extension of the tiresome trope of treating public schools like a business. Students are customers, so let’s make them want what our public schools are selling!”

The practice of dishing out points, badges, stickers, and other student rewards has gained traction in many classrooms. A badge system, for example, is used in traditional classrooms and in online environments by teachers who want to reward mastery or demonstration of behaviors and skills. But to many educators, the practice—granted, the level of sophistication varies greatly— amounts to little more than a crude method to elicit a Pavlovian response from students.

“I’ve seen this in action and even tried it. Students will get excited, but the novelty wears off quickly,” says John Spencer. “A colleague of mine was using a badge system to motivate kids to write. Soon, he allowed the students to collect badges and then turn them in for prizes. So already the badge wasn’t enough. He had to add a second layer of rewards.”

Kathy Sierra, a popular technology blogger, author and game developer, believes that incentivizing learning-related behaviors poses risks. Sierra says rewards should be left at the classroom door. She is critical of the way gamification is practiced in the classroom, and believes well-intentioned educators may be missing the mark.

“A well-designed game only deploys certain mechanics to support an intrinsically rewarding experience,” Sierra explains. “When you remove that experience but keep the mechanics, you are now working from an entirely different psychology than actual games, and it is one that, in essence, uses mechanics to drive mechanical behaviors.”

No matter their short-term appeal, educators shouldn’t want to foster mechanical behaviors. “These behaviors are not associated with the kind of robust, deep, and durable motivation we want for our students,” Sierra says.

Look Beneath the Surface

Matthew Farber is not keen on the term “gamification” partly because it has been too closely and unfairly associated with rewards and other external motivators. He agrees that it can be counterproductive to drive student interest through a clumsy use of badges and points.

“Obviously we can’t treat students like Starbucks customers. If you focus more on extrinsic motivations, that implies that you're lacking confidence in your approach.”

What’s missing, Farber says, is a narrative structure that places the student on a “journey,” similar to what the best games do.

“The journey is to build mastery,” Farber says. “The better way to gamify is to put students in an inquiry-based or project-based learning experience. Or give them a task in a narrative frame.”

It’s fine to include elements like badges, points or leaderboards along the way, adds Farber, but they shouldn't be too central to the experience. Attention will likely spike and recede, and teachers have to keep in mind that these motivators are not effective for students who aren’t naturally competitive.

In Farber’s social studies class, students immerse themselves in historical debate—their study of the Articles of Confederation for example—using instrinsic game elements like narrative, creativity, and collaboration, rather than just badges. This is less gamification, Farber explains, and more “game-inspired learning.”

Kathy Sierra sees potential in some forms of gamification, but says educators shouldn’t be seduced by the lure and hype surrounding the concept. Instead of applying surface elements of games, she suggests teachers look beneath the surface and create the right balance of challenge and skill, deeper knowledge, and high-quality feedback.

“My recommendation to educators is to not try to sugarcoat tasks in the classroom,” Sierra says. “Try to find what is inherently interesting in a subject and exploit that. It doesn’t matter if students roll their eyes. A good teacher can capture their attention and engage them before they even have a chance to think they aren’t interested.”