Gamify the Classroom
About 10 years ago, there was an educational program called “Fizz and Martina’s Math Adventures” shown in many elementary schools. The show followed Fizz (who resembles an alien) and Martina (an ant) through four engaging adventures.
Students worked in collaborative groups to solve the problems posed throughout the show. Rather than just write down answers, students were forced to actually explain the reasoning behind their solutions. If they did well enough, teams could earn “award cards” with pictures of the characters on them.
And let me tell you, students loved it. In fact, they loved it so much that you’d often hear students asking their teachers to stay in for recess so they could keep playing. That’s innovative education.
Recently, there has been a surge in “gamifying” education, or presenting content in a game-like context to motivate learners to engage with the material. Is this a fad, or a natural evolution in educating the next generation of students?
From a Lecture to an Interactive Experience
“Fizz and Martina” came in a time before iPhones, before iPads, and before the word “app” was a household term. Now, I look at my nieces — both under the age of six — and I’m surprised by their ability to navigate any app with ease; they understand every button and function intuitively. That’s because quick-changing technology has been part of their lives since birth. It’s a huge influence on how they see and interact with the world.
To educate this very different group of students entering high school, middle school, and even preschool, we need a new approach to the way we teach, train, and interact. Technology is the key, but this is not just about hardware and a blank screen. By using game mechanics, the educational practice can transition from a lecture to an interactive and engaging activity.
Now, like any parent who watches his son or daughter drain away hours and hours behind the screen of a Nintendo DS, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “More games?” Let me ease your doubts.
Games are inherently social. They’re built on the social qualities of people. Sure, books and lectures can certainly be defended as learning tools, but it begs the question: is this the most effective way to engage students? If you target students’ natural tendencies — in other words, games — your chances of engagement will skyrocket. We’ve been using the same delivery methods for centuries. We’re a little overdue for experimentation.
Learn to Gamify the Classroom
“Gamification” is still a fairly new term, but human resources departments and training programs are already touting the use of gaming strategies to make work and study more engaging, rewarding, and applicable. Educators shouldn’t be the last ones to employ these methods; a change will inevitably take place, and teachers and parents can either begin now to strategically prepare, or be left behind. From Codecademy to Duolingo to Study Island, there’s a plethora of programs out there to emulate.
Figuring out how to make users feel proud about learning a topic, rather than chastised for not knowing about it, is an important piece that needs to be solved, and gamification can lead the way. Giving students instant self-gratification by unlocking more difficult topics is an important way of including game mechanics in learning. “Angry Birds” did a phenomenal job of creating bite-sized levels and allowing users to unlock them as they progressed, making each level more difficult than the previous. We extended that concept and created storyboards for our pilot app in collaboration with the Princeton Review; we built 10 quizzes, ordered in level of difficulty.
The average number of questions per quiz is about five, with each quiz taking about 10 minutes to complete — like a game, these are fast-paced exercises. If the student answers four questions correctly, he moves on to the next quiz. If he fails to answer four correctly, the app explains the answers, including why each selection was incorrect.
Besides this process of leveling-up, we wanted to give context — something that’s extremely important for a “sticky” experience. The app allows students to see how their test results compare to others’, and it enables them to break those comparisons down to only those studying for their specific GRE test, like Arts and Humanities.
But the gamification aspect isn’t solely about competition — it’s about developing skills throughout each level. Our app offers tests in different categories, from sentence equivalencies to geometry equations, with more than 300 practice problems. Students unlock new problems, levels, and boards based on their performance, with an intelligent report card that analyzes each test. Students understand what they’re getting wrong with the explanations provided, they have a valid score card to track their progress, and they can compare to local and national leaderboards, making the experience much more engaging.
Challenges and Rewards
Our education system needs a wake-up call, and the gamification of course materials is just one aspect of this. The act of gaming is a natural part of our culture, and it will continue to be. We love the challenge, the rewards, and even the failures; we spend hours trying to beat a level, only to find a bigger challenge looming — all things applicable to the classroom and the growth of a student.
Teachers who used “Fizz and Martina” back in the day were risk takers, but they were also innovative. For them, the payoff was big: Their students were almost always engaged in the materials, oftentimes begging to “learn” more. However, gamification is not something that can be done in isolation. It requires integration with social elements in the right context, as well as some level of personalization — not every participant will be at the same level. The tool needs to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of each student. That way, every player will become a better — and more engaged — student.
About the Author
Ujjwal Gupta is the co-founder of BenchPrep, a cross-device learning platform that allows students to buy educational and test prep content from leading publishers and study across all devices. It allows students to take practice tests and get real-time scores. BenchPrep is backed by NEA, Revolution Ventures, and Lightbank, with more than 200,000 students using the platform.
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