Using Gamification to Get Buy-In From Students

I think a lot about gamification. Not because I consider myself an expert, or even particularly good at it. I am obsessed with this concept because I think it actually works. This morning as I drove to work, I was thinking about why a person would want to spend time and energy learning about, developing, implementing, and improving gamification techniques in the classroom. After some thought, and skimming a few blog posts later in the day, I think I know what attracts me to gamification:

Buy-in

This is an essential piece of the teaching puzzle that hardly ever gets mentioned. We talk about learning activities, aligning learning objectives with assessment, making thinking visible, timely and targeted feedback, and differentiation (all of which are undeniably important), but rarely do I hear people in my profession talk about strategies for gaining buy-in from the students. Maybe we use other terms to express the same concept: engagement, motivation, fun. But to me, what I am really trying to achieve with my students is buy-in. Yes, I ultimately want them to learn, learn how to learn, and learn to love learning, but what influences my day to day experience more than anything else is buy-in.

Here’s an example. When I was a school teacher, I learned quickly that what I called “classroom management” was less about me controlling the students than it was about students choosing to cooperate with me. Once I figured this out, I no longer exerted my control over students, and spent more time creating an environment where students were motivated to cooperate with the expectations I had set. Early on, I used The Book, where students would write their name if they got in trouble. As in, “Johnny, I told you to stop talking. Go write your name in The Book.” Or, “Suzy, you are supposed to write in your journal as soon as you hand in your homework. Go write your name in The Book.” If multiple infractions occurred, students would put check marks next to their name. One check mark meant missing 5 minutes of recess (which really just delayed my bathroom break by 5 minutes). Two check marks meant a whole recess, and so on.

I hated this technique because it placed too much emphasis on the behaviors I was trying to eradicate. I noticed bad behavior, and then I called attention to bad behavior, then I virtually rewarded it by letting the student stop working long enough to walk to the front of the classroom to write in The Book (which for some students might as well have been called The Big Badass Book of Awesome Badassses). This was not the kind of buy-in I was looking for. Some students were actually motivated to do the wrong thing as a way to build their classroom mojo.

When I finally was able to see this, I knew I had to add some dimensions to my classroom management that took the focus off bad behavior. What if, I thought, I put effort into catching the students doing the right thing? Would this make a difference, or did being bad just feel too doggone good? I had to find out.

So, I added two things to my classroom management repertoire that absolutely changed everything. First, I started passing out Aggie Bucks (because I went to Utah State and we’re the Aggies, and I shamelessly promote my school at every opportunity). If students came in quietly in the morning, handed in their homework, and wrote their assignments in their planner, they got an Aggie Buck. If they worked quietly on their Do Now activity, they got another one. There were about 3-4 times throughout the day where students would get Aggie Bucks for doing what they were supposed to do without being reminded. They could spend their Aggie Bucks in the classroom store before or after school on things like pencil sharpeners, books, erasers, and throwing knives. I just wanted to see if you were still reading.

From this point on, I don’t remember having to threaten or warn students about The Book. I would just skip over kids who had not done their morning procedures and give an Aggie Buck to the student who had. The student would eventually self-correct so he could get his Aggie Buck. It was like magic, and suddenly I had children in my classroom willing to cooperate with me.

The other thing I started using was the Pizza Board. No, I did not start giving my students pizza parties. I had a cardboard fraction board that looked like a pizza. There were 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and whole pieces. Anytime I caught the class being good, like when they got a compliment from another teacher for being quiet in the hall or letting someone go first at the drinking fountain, I would give them a pizza slice. If they got two, they had to exchange it for an equivalent fraction. I only had two rules: they couldn’t barter for a pizza slice, and I did not take them away once they were earned. That would be like taking away another teacher’s compliment. How dare I?!? If the class earned the whole pizza, they would get to do a fun activity on Friday for about 15-20 minutes (which, according to the students, was ALL DAY).

Here’s the point: Both of these strategies, which rely on game mechanics, were able achieve buy-in from the students.

Gamification works when what you offer aligns with what they want, and you all work together to achieve it.

I faithfully made copies of Aggie Bucks and looked for opportunities to catch the students being good, and the students fervently tried to get caught being good. It wasn’t rocket science, but it worked. It was a two-way street, and neither me nor the students could slack off if this system was going to work.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I do not know what each person reading this post is trying to accomplish with gamification strategies in the classroom. Maybe the students are motivated to move up to higher levels. Perhaps they are motivated to earn paper money so they can buy things. My students are willing to demonstrate professional behavior in order to stay on top of the class leaderboard. This is how I get buy-in from my students. I am offering what they want, which is status, bragging rights, and ultimately, a good grade. I have structured it in such a way that they earn it through good actions rather than losing it through mistakes.

I encourage you to try using game mechanics as part of your teaching and classroom mechanics. It’s not magic, but with some persistence it can be a lot of fun. You have to be committed in order for it to work. Remember, frequent reinforcement is how you show the students you have bought into your own program, which fosters trust and buy-in from them.

What about you? Share some of your classroom techniques that utilize game mechanics.

3 thoughts on “Using Gamification to Get Buy-In From Students

  1. As you, I started my gamification journey with a simple leaderboard. The buy-in and increase in student achievement from something as simple as that encouraged me to develop a fully gamified experience, complete with storyline, XP, Power-Ups and Easter Eggs (http://teachingabovethetest.blogspot.com/2014/07/setting-up-gamified-classroom.html). My middle-schoolers loved the idea and the game, and they helped me actually figure out some of the mechanics. I am not a gamer but rather a mother of teenaged gamers and well, I teach middle school. This year I am overhauling the game, changing the story-line to suit the grade levels teach, as well as modifying the components to include boss battles along with the different quests. (http://teachingabovethetest.blogspot.com/2015/06/gamifying-ngss.html)

    • Thank you for the comments and sharing your experience. It does seem we have had a similar experience with gamification in the classroom. I am always thinking about new ways to make it more interesting to my students. My students are college freshmen and sophomores, and some ideas work better than others. They love the leaderboard and challenges, but they resist badges. I have started using them in a different class, and they work a little better. More than anything, it has been fun to reimagine the teaching strategies I have used for years with gamification principles. It was a bit of a risk, but I was pleased when the students responded positively. Keep sharing your ideas as you try new things.

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