Many educators believe that learning should be challenging. But the wisest ones believe it can be fun, too! Certainly, adding an element of enjoyment to education increases student engagement. Fortunately, educators have many tools at their disposal to reach this goal, like gamification and game-based learning.

For the uninitiated, these two terms may sound like the same thing, and indeed, they are related. However, there are also some subtle differences. It’s important to learn the difference between them so that you can use each tool to your best advantage. 

So, what is game-based education? And what is gamification in education? Below, we explain these frameworks and how can they be put to use in the higher ed classroom. 

What’s the difference between Gamification in Education vs. Game-Based Learning?

Gamification and game-based learning share some similarities, with a common goal of promoting motivation and engagement in learning. However, there are important differences in their methodologies.

Game-based learning is the process of designing inherently game-like learning activities. Game principles and characteristics are built into the learning activities themselves. As an example, students in an International Relations course may participate in a Model United Nations Conference to solve an international dispute; in a Finance course, learners may take part in a virtual stock-trading contest.

These game-based learning tools can be used in conjunction with other learning tools, like textbooks or other written course materials to supplement and reinforce learning. In other cases, they can replace these tools, like educational video games that teach students a foreign language.

While all game-based learning models include gamification, not all gamification tools include games. Instead, gamification offers educators a way to bring some of the elements of games into the learning environment.

Gamification is the process of integrating game elements into more traditional learning activities. This can include badges, leaderboards or points systems to increase engagement and motivation. For example, an online discussion forum for a Philosophy class might use a badge system to encourage student participation. Learners would earn a “Plato” badge after they have made five postings, a “Descartes” badge after 10 postings, “Confucius” after 30, “Laozi” after 40, and so on. This way, students can see how their contributions compare to their peers, creating a sense of competition and camaraderie in the classroom.

To summarize, game-based learning creates teaching and learning opportunities that are intrinsically game-like; gamification integrates game elements into existing learning activities.

Gamified Learning by Discipline

Gamification can enhance student learning in any course, regardless of discipline. To add friendly competition and motivation to your course, below are easy-to-implement gamified learning examples, categorized by discipline. 

1. Gamified Learning Examples in STEM

The STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are often ideal for gamification and game-based learning platforms because they employ technology, including game technology.

For example, Mathematics courses can make use of leaderboards. This tactic displays the distribution of point totals that students have accumulated through various learning activities, such as who has completed the most problem sets or scored highest on a given assessment. However, caution must be taken when constructing leaderboards because displaying all students in order of point totals can be discouraging for students who may be scoring lower than the majority of their peers. As an alternative, consider using a system in which students can only see the two learners who are directly below them and above them. This way, instructors can foster healthy competition and motivation, without discouraging students who need to improve in certain areas.

An online dissection exercise can help students track their understanding of internal organs, for example, while even creating competition among their peers. In Top Hat, instructors can create a click-on-target question and ask students to click on a specific organ within the body of a frog, for example. The number of students who correctly click will receive a point. Alternatively, within a Top Hat interactive textbook, embed a 3D simulation of the inside of a frog for students to explore on their own. They can read about the different parts/organs and then apply their understanding using end-of-chapter quizzes.

2. Game-Based Learning vs. Gamification in Social Science

Social science students can benefit from gamified learning as well. The game Barbarian Battlefield is one of the many examples of game-based learning platforms that teach social science students about some aspect of their field—in this case, about Rome’s ancient history.

Such educational gameplay allows students to go on quests, win badges and collaborate with their fellow students to tackle challenging course concepts. Independent side quests in this game also allow students to become community experts in the subject, sharing their independent research with classmates. In this particular case, the line between game-based learning and gamification is blurred, since Barbarian Battlefield introduces elements of both.

Alternatively, instructors teaching an introductory Psychology course can create a sorting question in their Top Hat course and ask students to correctly identify the four stages of cognitive development as identified by psychologist Jean Piaget. Then, students can re-arrange their answers into the correct order based on the order that each stage occurs chronologically.

Additionally, gamifying parts of social science courses improve the overall quality of students’ work. Student participation has been shown to increase by as much as 143 percent, just by adding gamification software and tools.

3. Games and Gamification Software in Business Courses

Business courses provide many opportunities for instructors to gamify learning. With experience or points systems, students have been recognized for their successful completion of reading assignments, chapter quizzes and other assessments. Game or experience points provide useful benefits to higher ed classrooms, like:

  • Limitless points: Traditional grading methods gather insights into student progress and learning which accumulate to 100 percent of a student’s grade by the end of an academic term, game or XP points can accumulate as much as the instructor chooses. In a business course, this can include how many times a student participates in discussion forums, or the number of real-world examples from the stock market they can share with the class.
  • Student choice: Giving students a say in how to gamify their learning helps give them a sense of accountability for their success. For example, students might be able to earn points by focusing on collaborative activities with their peers, or by researching current events related to the course, or the number of quizzes they choose to complete.
  • Flexible goals: When instructors implement this strategy in their classroom, learners are given a variety of opportunities to earn points. Professors design the course so that students can either complete a certain number of activities, like online discussion posts, to reach the desired point total or accumulate as many as they want.
  • Tracking: Using Top Hat’s gradebook feature, instructors can track student progress with points rather than percentages.

4. Gamifying the Arts and the Humanities

Game-based learning platforms work well in the arts and the humanities. Short assessments, like quizzes, can be used to dig deeper into complex course concepts. To engage students, instructors should not provide students with a series of unrelated questions on a collaborative assignment or quiz. Rather, these assessments should be designed as a narrative or quest that draws learners in and helps them understand alternative viewpoints. This way, each quiz has an interactive narrative: every question or writing prompt guides students to the next, and may build upon previous answers. Ideally, they should be structured in a way that connects to a larger narrative or story. In arts and humanities courses, this can be a way to unpack a major historical event, like the history of a royal dynasty or exploring a philosophical debate.

To build motivation and encouragement, instructors can also include hints that the learner can choose to use or not. To create an opportunity for collaboration in online learning environments, ask students to complete an online quiz on their own time, and then place them in breakout rooms during class time and complete the same quiz, but now try to convince one another of their own opinion or viewpoint.

Gamification and Game-based Learning Tools

Here, we share some tools that streamline the gamification process for educators.

  • Duolingo: This popular app gamifies the language learning process by encouraging students to complete daily grammar and vocabulary drills to gain points and badges to proceed to higher levels.
  • Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT): The IF-AT gives students quick feedback on multiple-choice questions. Students scratch a card to reveal the correct answer. This provides a great opportunity for collaboration when answering group assessment questions and provides students with motivation and excitement when scratching the card.
  • Second Life: This platform is particularly beneficial in remote learning environments. Learners can create their characters and interact with their peers in a 3D space. This promotes collaboration and communication, particularly in large courses where students might normally be intimidated by raising their hands to participate.
  • Brainscape: To promote knowledge retention, Brainscape uses flashcard exercises to build student confidence. It is designed to make learning vocabulary words, definitions and course concepts.
  • Credly: This tool allows instructors to create their badges to distribute to students as they reach certain achievement levels.
  • Top Hat: Top Hat is a learning platform with integrated, interactive services that provide educators and students with access to information, tools and online resources to support course delivery and management. It provides communication and engagement tools that allow instructors to connect and interact with students through in-app notifications and direct messages, as well as polls and discussions that can be used in physical and virtual classroom environments. With progress and performance tracking, including gradebooks and reporting that capture data from attendance, instructors can store assessment, attendance and poll data within the platform to provide insights into student achievement and participation.

Adding Fun, Motivation and Healthy Competition to Your Class

Gamification and game-based learning platforms have become one of the newest and most exciting trends in education. These learning tools engage students by adding elements of fun and good-spirited competition into the learning environment.

Additionally, these tools are flexible, meaning that they’re not just for elementary and high school students. Many higher ed instructors have turned to gamification to increase engagement and improve learning retention among students and trainees.

Finally, those who wish to gamify their curricula can do so by adding game-like elements like badges and contests to their learning programs. They can also introduce educational games and simulations to supplement or replace learning tools like textbooks. These tools represent a step forward in learning and are some of the most powerful methods instructors can use to increase engagement in their learning environments.

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