Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Gamification: Making Learning Fun and Intuitive


The first time I taught English as a Second Language (ESL), one of my fellow instructors was writing a dissertation on gamification.  My immediate reaction to turning learning for adults into a game was not so positive (learning should be serious, right?!).  But as I listened to her theories and watched her students learn faster than mine did, I became intrigued.


What is gamification?  Wikipedia defines it as “the introduction of game elements in a non-game situation.”  In other words, instructors turn exercises into games to encourage participation and essentially hide the learning aspect of the exercise.


Why does it work?  It’s fun!  People get more relaxed focusing on the game part of the exercise, creating mental space for the learning to occur.  For some students, it feeds their sense of competition, which enhances motivation for learning.  Most importantly, it works with (rather than against) the neuroscience of the brain.  “What fires together, wires together.”  Repetition strengthens the neural connections in the brain, and gamification provides a non-boring way to practice repetition.  Finally, the game can generate a lot of laughter, which has additional neuroscience benefits for learning.


What does gamification look like?  Here’s the game I designed for that ESL class:  practicing tenses for the verb “to be” using dice.  The set-up for the game:

·      Two dice

·      Two columns on the board:  one column lists six pronouns (I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they); the other column lists tenses (past, present, future, past, present, future)

Going in turns, each student rolls both dice.  The number of each die facing up tells the student what they need to say (die 1 = 3, die 2 = 4:  “he was”).  The beauty of the game is its unpredictability, and the students can go at whatever pace they’re comfortable with.  Depending on the competitiveness of the students, you can choose to keep score (or not).


OK, so I was sold on gamification.  In the classroom.  But does it work for online learning?


Popular Science magazine recently reviewed a variety of gamified learning apps that incorporate principles of online games to serious topics.  The major benefit appears to be the dopamine hit the student gets from playing the learning game, which encourages continued use (and, therefore, continued learning).  I encourage you to go read the Popular Science article in full, but here is a sample of the apps they reviewed:


·      Duolingo is a prime example of gamification.  The app applauds you for every correct answer (feel that “ping” of pleasure in your brain?!), and gently (but persistently) nudges you to take the next step if you start slacking off on the lessons.  The app’s humorous nudges have created an entire meme library (e.g., It’s simple. Spanish or vanish.)

·      eQuoo seeks to teach emotional intelligence (EQ) through choose-your-own-adventure games.

·      World Citizen teaches world geography through quizzes and competition with others.

·      Yousician, which has been compared to the video game Guitar Hero, helps you learn to play an instrument (guitar, piano, ukulele) by simulating a real performance scenario.


Suggestions for incorporating gamification into your curriculum can be found here, here, and here.


May the best player/learner win!

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