7 Steps to Gamification

This past year I decided to use some gamification strategies with one of my classes. I had been exposed to this idea through several articles and conference presentations, and I knew it was something that would help my teaching. After getting a handle on the course design and technical issues associated with gamification strategies, I started to see the benefits for me and my students.

Over the last couple of months, I have been thinking a lot about how to share my experience with gamification with others who might want to learn. After some thought, and a lot of trial and error, I have narrowed my approach to gamification down to 7 steps. These steps are not meant to be a formula because your goals and outcomes may be different than mine. These are just steps to consider as you plan your own gamification strategies.

Step 1: Decide what you want to motivate your students to do.

This may seem obvious, but it is important that you are not just using gamification strategies for their own sake. If you want to get buy-in from your students, you must know ahead of time what you want to accomplish. What is it you want to increase or enhance with gamification strategies?

In my case, I wanted to hold the students more accountable on their professional behavior. I started keeping track of class attendance, preparation before the class meetings, professional behavior in the schools they were visiting, and active participation in discussions. I had found over time that some students were able to do these things without any sort of external motivator, while others seemed to have no sense of professional behavior. Since these are all pretty simple things to keep track of, it seemed like an obvious target for gamification strategies.

Step 2: Figure out what motivates your students.

Next, you have to find out what motivates your students. Some people use experience points (XP) and levels, while others use badges and accomplishments. You have to know the students you are working with and find out what they are willing to work for.

In my case, what my students are willing to work for is a high grade. Other components of my class (exams, writing assignments, etc.) are pretty tough and leave some of the students discouraged. Others excel in these areas and want to stay at the top of the heap. This may seem obvious, but a high grade is quite motivating for students at a highly selective private university. Go figure. So, the students' performance on the professionalism "game" is converted to a grade, which is then calculated into the overall score. These students know that if they do everything they are supposed to, it translates into a high professionalism grade, which can boost their overall average. Before I used to keep track of everything, students just assumed they would get their full participation grade (which they usually did) because there was no way to really quantify it. Now that I can quantify it, students can see their progress and don't seem to argue with me about it.

Step 3: Determine your experience points (XP).

After you have spent some time thinking about (and observing) what motivates your students, you need to determine your XP. I gave my XP the following values:

  • Attendance: 100 pts. per week
  • Preparation before class: 100 pts. per week
  • Conduct and Appearance at schools: 200 pts. per week
  • Discussion after the school visit: 100 pts.

I know this seems pretty simple, but my goal is to keep it simple so I can stay on top of this game and give the students timely feedback. If I create something so complex that it takes hours each week to manage, there is more likelihood I will get behind and the game will lose its effectiveness.

Step 4: Design the rules of the game.

Now that you have your XP, you need to decide how you will keep track of the points and how the students can check their progress. Rules are really important because they give the game parameters. I tend to lean toward consistency and repetition, and it just so happens my students like the predictability of the game. They know exactly what I am keeping track of, and they know what happens if they do not complete one of the requirements. I can't give points for a class they didn't attend or an observation they missed, and they seem to accept this.

Step 5: Update often, give frequent feedback.

I decided to have my TA's enter the points every Monday while I was teaching. They really don't do anything in the lecture hall while I am teaching anyway, so it made sense to keep them busy with updating points. I know, not everyone has a TA, so you may want to keep your game simple until you can come up with a plan that works for you.

I rank the students using a leaderboard. I use Google Sheets, and I have written about how to do this before. My approach thus far has been to rank the students using the leaderboard, and to let their innate competitiveness compel them to do things that will help them move up. Some students are content knowing they are doing everything they need to do without doing the extra things to move up. Others want to be at the top and will work tirelessly to stay there. I am fine with either case, as long as they students are being responsible and, ultimately, professional.

I have been surprised how often the students check the leaderboard. Even though this ultimately only determines 10% of their overall grade, some of them take it REALLY seriously. When there are opportunities to get extra points, they really get after it. I would be willing to bet if I asked the class their current rank, they would know exactly where they are.

Step 6: Provide opportunities to move up, improve, and be challenged.

This was probably the most important lesson I learned from using gamification strategies in my class this semester. The first time I did this, I kept track of the 4 main areas mentioned previously, but there was really no way to move up or improve on early mistakes. The more I thought about it, I couldn't imagine a more demotivating situation. Imagine playing a sport where there was no way to make up for a mistake made in the first quarter. Or a race where you couldn't recover from a bad start. This is essentially how I had this component of my course set up. I calculated the entire semester together, which minimized the value of individual accomplishments. Yes, students could recover if they missed something early in the semester, but that also meant they could skip some things toward the end and it wouldn't really matter.

The first thing I did was made sure there were opportunities for students to move up the leaderboard. I did this in the form of classroom competitions, challenges, and bonus points. Some of the students liked the aspect of competition this added to the class. I also split the professionalism score into three rounds. So, a student could do poorly in the first round, but fix the problem and do better in the next two rounds. While this had little impact on the overall grade the student received, it did help more students get back on the right path. For example, when all of the XP were calculated into one, massive score, students who started off poorly rarely started doing better. I honestly think they believe they had blown it, so there was no reason to try to do better. Conversely, when I split Professionalism into 3 rounds, I was able to say, "OK, on Monday we are starting from scratch. No matter how you did in the first round, you can start over." I noticed that several students who did poorly in the first round actually corrected their mistakes and did well during the next two rounds. There is more value in the possibility of a fresh start than I had previously believed. Even though the students were still accountable for their early mistakes, they were more likely to get on the right track if they knew they would get a fresh start. By the way, I think this is true in life, not just in gamification.

Step 7: Use the data to make instructional decisions.

As a teacher, the most valuable lesson I have learned from collecting data on my students from the gamification strategies is to use that data to make instructional decisions. In some cases, it was clear from the weekly reading assignments that the class was not understanding the course material. When I am able to see from the student responses that many of them did not correctly comprehend the reading assignment, I can address that in class. I can also see patterns in student attendance (especially on Fridays) that I might not have otherwise noticed, which provides me with an opportunity to talk about this with the students. When students miss class or fail to complete a reading assignment, I can automatically send them a follow-up e-mail telling them I noticed they were gone (even if I didn't) and restate the attendance or assignment policy. When students have perfect attendance or complete all of their weekly readings for a round, I can send them a certificate of achievement. I learned from my days as an elementary school teacher that students respond much better when you catch them being good than when you remind them they just screwed up. Accountability is a good thing, but I think it should be balanced with positive news. Finally, I have learned how important it is to have detailed records for each student. Occasionally, students will contact me at the end of the term (or later) and want to know why they got this or that grade in my class. Having a detailed, quantitative report of their performance for the entire semester has come in handy in several instances.

What am I missing? What have you learned from using gamification strategies in your class?