Gamifying Learning Leaves a Lasting Impression

Behind me is the beautiful Cathedral of St Helena. I was attempting to convey how my time in Montana was about more than taking and posting photos, especially selfies. It was about seeing and experiencing first-hand.

My mission was clear—take a photograph that represented my three weeks in Helena, Montana, as a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Scholar. I had three hours to complete the task. The picture was to be uploaded to a shared Google Photos album and tagged with a code name. At the sound of the timer’s alarm, each player was to present his or her results to the team.

This activity is one of my fondest memories from the “Re-enchanting Nature” Summer Seminar for School Teachers. Each year, NEH offers tuition-free opportunities for K-12 educators to study a variety of humanities subjects such as architecture, history, literature, music, and philosophy with some of the finest scholars in America. The purpose of “Re-enchanting Nature” was to explore what the humanities can add to our increasingly important public discourse about the environment.

When I think of my experience in Montana, taking this photograph is the first thing that comes to mind. That is saying a lot. Especially when my other memories include witnessing the eruption of Old Faithful at Yellowstone, encountering a grizzly bear at Glacier National Park, and white water rafting down the Clark Fork River. So, what made taking this photograph so memorable? The activity was gamified!

Gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing (rules, point scoring, and competition with others) to other areas of activity, specifically to engage users in problem solving. Gamification is not just for learning. It is working for health insurance companies (earn points for taking steps); restaurants (earn a free drink after a certain number of purchases); social media sites (expand your profile to bring the “completion bar” up to 100%); and the sports industry (users compete against each other in the daily amount of physical activity for special rewards).

Students’ library orientation is gamified with a scavenger hunt.

If gamification motivates people during their everyday lives, just think about what it can do for students.

Gamification has become a popular tactic to encourage specific behaviors and increase engagement. When teachers gamify learning, students are given a greater sense of agency. They become actors with a very important role. Their actions lead to desired outcomes.

Here are some tips to consider if you are interested in gamifying education at your school.

It is worth mentioning that in order to give your classroom a gamified “feel,” you need to use the correct terms and phrases. Instead of saying class, use team or squad. Instead of saying activity, try quest or mission. It might seem silly to use a new set of terms during classroom instruction but in the end, you will create a positive classroom culture. Get ideas from the Glossary of Video Game Terms!

Involve students in designing a storyboard that launches gamification in the classroom. Just like with video games, programmers have to build game mechanics, designers follow clear instructions, and the quality assurance team knows about reward incentives. Design storyboards using PBS LearningMedia Storyboard!

My Bitmoji loves Montana, too!

Create Avatars
Increase students’ sense of ownership in learning with personalized avatars. By creating versions of themselves, students will embrace the gamification of classroom activities. Create avatars using Androidy or Bitmoji!

Progress Bars or Levels of Completion
Create a monitoring system where students keep track of learning tasks and reflect on learning goals. This gamification strategy will motivate students to master learning targets in order to “level up.” Progress bars and checkpoints support differentiation as each student’s system is developed according to his or her needs. Create progress charts for students using Google Sheets!

As students progress throughout a learning unit, they can earn badges to show their achievements. For example, give students badges after they watch instructional videos and complete problem sets. Badges should also be printed out and handed to students. Who doesn’t love putting stickers on their notebook or laptop? Create badges using Google Drawings!

Save Game
Gamers do not just power down their consoles without saving their progress. They think about what they have accomplished, where they are in the level, and what they plan to do next time. The same should be true in the classroom. Give students opportunities to “save” their work by reflecting on their learning and making a strategy for what’s next.

Gamification has tremendous potential in the education space, and it will likely look different from one classroom to the next. Design learning experiences that address your students’ needs and interests. Ask them what they find appealing about playing games. From there, you will know what steps to take to enrich students’ day-to-day learning. It worked for me. Because of my quest to capture my NEH experience through a camera lens, I will never forget those three weeks I spent in Montana. I want my students to look back on their time in the library and say the same. Adding elements of gamification to everyday instruction will make that mission possible.


Author: Sam Northern, Ed.D.

Sam Northern is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. He currently serves as President of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. In 2014, Sam was selected for the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminars Abroad Program where he spent four weeks in China. Since then, Sam has voyaged to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and worked aboard a research vessel on the Atlantic Ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. From January to April 2018, Sam traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program to research best practices for project-based learning. Connect with him on Twitter @Sam_Northern and Facebook @themisterlibrarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Makerspaces/Learning Commons, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Technology

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