What Is Gamification in K-12 Education & Tips on How to Implement It

It’s the age-old challenge in education: Students can’t learn if they aren’t interested. So it’s not surprising that educators today are incorporating a major student interest outside of school to get them more actively involved in the learning process. Gamification in education, while still a developing approach, may just be the solution educators have been searching for.

Gamification Helps Students Achieve More

Gamification in education involves integrating elements of game design, such as point systems, goals and levels of achievement, into non-gaming activities to increase students’ engagement in learning and facilitate completion of tasks.

The driving concepts behind gamification are simple: familiarity and fun. Because students are already comfortable with and enjoy gaming, they feel more in control of the learning environment, which in turn leads them to interact with learning materials more freely and with more interest.

First let’s examine how students can benefit from gamification, and then we’ll look at some examples of how gamification can be implemented in the classroom.

Four Benefits of Using Gamification in Education

Incorporating game design into classroom instruction might increase the fun, but gamification also works to increase overall learning. Let’s look at four of the key positive outcomes of gamification in learning and the advantages of using this interactive approach in the classroom to improve student achievement.

Gamification Boosts Student Engagement

It’s every teacher’s objective: Drawing students into the learning material and enticing them to stay engaged until they achieve the desired learning outcome.

Well, that’s the objective of gaming too, and game designers have perfected the process of incorporating elements known to keep users interacting. When integrated into classroom instruction, activities like earning points and collecting rewards for achieving incremental goals motivate students to stay immersed in learning.

Gamification Teaches Resilience & Problem-Solving

Unlike getting an “F” on a math quiz, failure in traditional gaming is accepted. When a player doesn’t pass a level or win a challenge, they don’t give up. They analyze the situation to determine what they could do differently and try again, sometimes dozens of times, until they achieve success.

This same mindset carries over into a gamified learning activity in the classroom, igniting a similar desire for accomplishment even when students are faced with difficult tasks that require repeated attempts.

Gamification Improves Information Retention

Further, this fail–evaluate–retry process allows for students to engage in experimental thinking and to interact with the learning materials in a manner they determine. Individually driven, creative thinking results in students retaining what they have learned because they established the process that enabled that learning — a much more effective approach than memorizing information that is forgotten when a test is done.

Gamification Promotes Love of Learning

The “fun” aspect of gamification is based on scientific knowledge of how the human body works. When we participate in a stimulating activity the body releases the hormone dopamine, which delivers a sense of pleasure.

When students earn rewards or achievements during gamified learning, the “dopamine rush” motivates them to continue that activity. And, more broadly, it causes students to associate learning with positive feelings that extend beyond just specific activities.

Now that we know more about how and why gamification is an effective learning tool, let’s explore some ways it can be used in the classroom.

How to Implement Gamification in the Classroom

In a gamified classroom students aren’t just the recipients of information, they are collaborators in the learning process. By incorporating into lessons the features that make games engaging, you give students the opportunity to interact with the learning material and to make their own decisions and adjustments as they work toward mastery of a task or topic.

What Makes for a Gamified Learning Activity?

To gamify a learning activity, you could incorporate any of the following gaming mechanics alone or in combination:

  • Progressive levels, aka “leveling up,”that require the student to complete tasks of increasing difficulty
  • Points earned for completing tasks, participating in an activity, following classroom rules, or exhibiting any behavior you want to reinforce
  • Badges for performing predetermined activities 
  • Rewards to recognize students for conduct that isn’t a required part of a lesson, such as helping another student with their work
  • Individual challenges related to the same topic butthat differ from student to student based on individual skill level
  • Competitions among individual participants or teams
  • Leaderboards and rankings. It must be said that while competition can be healthy, it can also serve to discourage students near the bottom. Rather than displaying a full list in ranked order for all to see, you could allow students to see only the 2 or 3 students above and below them without identifying their place in the list.

Examples of Gamification in the Classroom

Gamification doesn’t require a lot of technology tools, or any for that matter. You can incorporate the gaming mechanics outlined above in the physical classroom or throughout lesson plans in ways large and small. Here are just a few examples.

Grade backwards. With the typical end-of-unit test, students start at 100 and lose points for incorrect answers. To gamify a lesson, flip your grading method from a negative to a positive learning experience.

Students start at zero and gain points for completing learning activities at their own pace. Unlike a one-shot test answer, students are allowed multiple attempts at a task until they achieve mastery. This allows students to experiment with different ways of thinking and to develop problem-solving skills. It also builds confidence as students realize they have the ability to work through difficult material.

Adapt the scavenger hunt. To gamify this old standby, each item found includes a clue to the next item – a puzzle students must solve to progress to the next location. Working in teams or individually, students earn extra points for being the first to find all the items.

For younger students, have them use tablets to take photographs or make videos of themselves using the items, or conduct an online search for information about specific items. One idea for older students is to have them scavenge for parts of a robot, with the final item being the instructions which they have to follow to build it.

Hide “easter eggs.” In video games, easter eggs are hidden tasks that, when found and completed, earn the user rewards. How does this translate to the classroom? For example, when a student receives their third reward for showing courtesy to classmates, they unlock a game they can play to earn 15 minutes of extra free time. Not only are they incentivized to continue their positive behavior, other students are motivated to behave similarly.

Design a quest. Create a backstory and the goal of the quest, with challenges characters must overcome and tasks to earn points and badges. Each student can create their own character with physical and personality traits they think will aid in the quest.

Base the quest on a current topic of study. Younger students can search through space to rescue a missing astronaut, while older students can track down the thief stealing famed works of art from the world’s major art museums.

While there are many apps you can use to create and play the quest, a tech-free approach would be to have students illustrate their character and parts of the story or come in costume to act out how they solved a challenge.

Get creative with badges. Badges don’t have to be a digital rendering or a physical ribbon. Students can earn a homework pass, a hint from the teacher on their next math quiz, or an extra day to complete a project.

These are just a few ideas to introduce gamification into the classroom to engage students more deeply in the learning process. To learn more ways, as well as specific tools, apps and software for all grade levels and subjects, plan to attend the next National Future of Education Technology® Conference