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A Simple Gamification Solution for Teachers

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

A Simple Gamification Solution for Teachers

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Gamification became a hot topic in education when it was discovered that games are ideal learning instruments. We think of students' amazing dexterity in navigating virtual worlds as somehow innate, but in reality they have learned quickly because of fundamental design considerations that can apply to formal education as well.

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Gamification became a hot topic in education when it was discovered that games are ideal learning instruments. We think of students' amazing dexterity in navigating virtual worlds as somehow innate, but in reality they have learned quickly because of fundamental design considerations that can apply to formal education as well.

  • One, games provide short-range, achievable goals that lie on the edge of the player's expertise. The player develops expertise immediately and incrementally as he or she works through each new level of the game. Learning itself is a fundamentally enjoyable activity, and by giving the player the continuous feeling of learning, games provide a powerful motivation to continue (Gee).
  • Two, they provide immediate feedback on success in reaching those goals. Unlike working on a term paper that is due weeks from when he or she starts working on it, the game player knows success immediately by advancing to a new level.
  • Three, games provide failure without consequence. An odd feature of higher education is that student failure is preserved in a poor grade that gets incorporated into the final grade. This makes students risk-adverse and grade-obsessed, the very opposite traits that are needed to learn. By contrast, it does not matter how many times you die on the way to reaching the next level in a game. Once you are at that level, you have achieved full recognition for your accomplishment.
  • Four, games tend to have a public leaderboard that creates competition and thus the desire to succeed, whereas achievements in the form of grades are kept confidential. Only your teacher knows that you have succeeded.

Higher education is just now starting to incorporate these gaming principles, mostly through a “badgeification” of learning. Instead of awarding students grades on their assignments, students earn badges for successfully completing tasks, similar to moving up to a new level in a game. There are no grades of achievement for a particular task—there is just recognition of having done it correctly. These badges are then added at the end of the class to determine the final grade.

Sometimes, students are given a choice in the badges they will earn, effectively allowing them to select the learning path they want to take through the class. This borrows elements from adaptive learning, which tests student knowledge and feeds the students the content and tasks that represent what they do not currently know. Again, the principle comes from games, which often allow the players to choose the path they wish to take to make it to the next level. The best of these are designed to provide just the right level of challenge to fall short of inducing frustration that will cause the player to quit the game, and they can even alter the level of challenge according to the player's play.

Badgeification has the virtue of reversing the punitive grading system that is normally adopted by education. As Rob Prince (2015) notes, the game player begins with a score of “0” and then moves up for each new achievement. But higher education does the opposite by subtracting points from the perfect grade of “A” for every error. It would be similar to a video game starting at 1 million points and subtracting points from the players' scores as they moved through. How long would you want to play that game? Our very grading system undermines motivation.

But badgeificaton also has its limits. First and foremost, it is often implemented as just a new way to add up the final grade, and so it does not truly gamify the learning process itself. Students are often doing the same old assignments—writing papers, taking quizzes, etc.—and are just being graded with badges rather than letter grades. They are not learning through games. This induces the same grade obsession that undermines learning by teaching the student that the grade is the point of education, rather than learning itself. Plus, if badges are made public, the leaderboards uncomfortably bump up against FERPA, since students can infer one another's grades from their badges.

Moreover, a badge-based grading system can make it hard for students to tell where they stand in the class. A student who has achieved the fourth badge level in the eighth week of class may not have a good sense of whether that means he or she is doing well or poorly. Does it track toward a “B” or an “A” in the final grade? 

Finally, a cafeteria-style system that allows students to choose their own paths can cause the learning experience to lack coherence. Students get pockets of learning that do not have the proper context to make sense to them. This has been one of the major obstacles that have tripped up adaptive learning projects. Sometimes understanding any part of a broad theoretical topic requires a journey through that topic to provide certain types of information in a specific order. Even if you already understand carpentry, you might still need that topic covered within the context of overall house design in order to understand how to build a house.

But these problems need not deter faculty from experimenting with gamification in their courses. They are just issues to take into consideration. There are ways around them. One is to separate the gamification element from grades. For instance, my Medical Ethics class uses the same types of written assessments found in most classes, but I apply gamification principles to student discussion of case studies.

After covering the conceptual issues around a particular topic, such as Advance Directives, I give the students a number of real or hypothetical cases related to that topic to discuss. Students are put into groups and must post an analysis of each case, including how they would decide it and why. Students are then required to look at other groups' postings and comment on them.

Here is where the badgeification comes in. Students vote on the best postings, with the votes used to award badges that allow them to move up the leaderboard. Those who receive a certain number of votes from their peers are awarded a badge. These badges are not tied to grades, so there is no problem with making them public. But students are motivated to do a good job anyway by the mere presence of a leaderboard.

I also add to the lighthearted gaming element by coming up with names for the levels that parallel the positions medical students have as they move up in their careers. The levels are Medical Student, Intern, Resident, Attending Physician, Department Head, and Chief of Surgery. Maybe it's a bit hokey, but the added touch of realism seems to be appreciated by students.

When applying this simple badgeification system to your own courses, keep in mind that the activity that is used to earn badges can still be graded, even if the badges themselves are not used to determine the grade. An engineering instructor can have the students develop some sort of design or other practical application of the concepts that the instructor grades just as they normally would. But the instructor can at the same time have students evaluate each other's work and vote on what they like to produce badges or some other achievement. This separates the gamification from grades, while at the same time capturing the elements of games that make them such a powerful learning device.

Consider how you might apply this model to incorporate gamification in your courses.


Gee, J. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York, Macmillan.

Prince, R. (2015). It's Not a Class, It's a Story: Gamification of a College Course, The PASSHE Virtual Conference, Feb. 10.

John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is the Editor of Online Classroom.