6 Ways Gamification Boosts Learning
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Learn How Gamification Boosts Learning

We’ve known instinctively that people focus better, concentrate longer, and enjoy the experience more when tasks are turned into games through scoring, competition, and the appearance of progress. Recently, though, a combination of scholarly interest and the rise of tablets in education and training have proven this is true. Pilot programs for gamified education—like The Khan Academy, Udemy, and DuoLingo—have led to research supporting the concept. And the positive research results have led to formal education gamification, like ClassDojo, and corporate training packages, like RibbonHero.

Let’s look at 6 important ways gamification directly impacts learning in any environment. But first, you need to understand what gamification is.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification of education is the application of game elements to the process. The purpose is to increase the speed and effectiveness of training. These elements often include any or all of the following:

  • Visual elements more akin to video games than traditional education materials
  • Interactive elements that engage multiple senses and physical movement
  • Puzzles and challenges
  • Goals split into small, quickly achieved benchmarks for quicker, intermittent gratification
  • The existence of narrative and characters
  • Immediate feedback
  • Collaboration and/or competition
  • Increasing difficulty as initial skills are mastered
  • Player-driven progress

Although many of these elements are present in traditional training models, gamified instruction makes them more visible and immediate. Doing so produces a variety of improved results.

6 Ways Gamification Boosts Learning

1. Boosts Engagement

Students who learn in a gamified environment show substantially improved engagement compared to those who don’t. We’ve known since the 1990s that video games can be addictive because they activate the same dopamine responses as other potentially addictive behaviors, such as smoking and gambling.

Gamified education uses hard-wired neurological impulses and can improve how long students focus on their learning. As any teacher—and this study, among others—will tell you, engagement is one of the most essential aspects of successful education. When students are engaged, they focus in class, learn quickly, and remember what they learned. Students who aren’t engaged often leave a session feeling like they’ve learned little or nothing.

2. It Structures Motivation

People are motivated by the small, intermittent successes involved in completing discrete and immediate tasks.

Businesspeople, ranging from Microsoft executives to Stephen Covey, have understood firsthand the power of structured micro-achievements—the small, one-step tasks that comprise every project, from doing the laundry to building a skyscraper. Covey built a consulting empire of day planners who check items off a to-do list. Microsoft established market domination by emphasizing achievements—non-story-related tasks that demonstrate proficiency in a game—to their Xbox Live platform.

Gamified education is built around a series of such tasks. Instead of studying several chapters and taking a single test over a month’s or term’s worth of work, participants instead complete short quizzes once or twice per session. This structure works better with some of the ways our brains work and produces better results.

3. It Establishes Milestones

Gamified learning breaks learning tasks into manageable chunks, each with its own immediate reward for completion. Besides the motivation discussed above, this produces two important benefits.

First, it grants a sense of capability, accomplishment, and agency to students. With frequent evidence of progress and increasing mastery, the learner’s confidence grows along with their competence. This fosters engagement and enthusiasm. Second, it allows teachers more flexibility in instruction. Because the structure of a gamified curriculum manages student progress and grants more agency over the pace of learning, teachers are free to focus on helping students where they individually need it, rather than keeping all students at the same pace because they have to teach a whole group.

In short, gamification makes the learning experience more positive for everyone participating.

4. It Directly Improves Cognitive Development

It’s been said that your brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it will be. A crossword puzzle or Sudoku, for example, is like pushups for the mind. It exercises your cognition the way calisthenics exercise your cardiovascular system.

That’s a handy analogy, if fundamentally flawed on the physiological level. However, research from Dr. Aliya Hisam and her team supports the basic thesis.

In response to the growing trend of using video games in education, Hisam and her team conducted research that found teens who played video games consistently performed better in tasks involving analogy, processing speed, deductive reasoning, and mathematics.

Improved cognitive ability means learning more quickly and better applying what you’ve learned. In the right gamified learning environment, this creates an upward spiral. The game boosts cognition, which improves learning performance, which fosters even better cognition, which makes learning performance even better.

5. It Fosters Positive Competition

The points and achievements inherent in gamified education foster competition. Most people, when provided an opportunity to measure progress or success, will compare that progress or success to that of those around them. It appears to be a fundamental fact of human nature, with few exceptions.

Gamification plays right into that tendency by providing upfront, clear measures of progress and success. It does this by including levels, achievements, and scores inherent in the process, and changing them immediately upon completion of a task.

The benefits of competition include improved teamwork, enhanced social learning, increased intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset, and better self-assessment of progress and abilities. All of these lead to better performance on the lesson materials and often to better general performance in life.

6. It Improves Retention

Retention is the Achilles’ heel of much learning. It doesn’t matter how well a student does in class, how engaged they appear to be, or even what score they get on a final exam. If they can’t recall the lesson material out in the world, the class did little for them in the long term.

A 2014 study found that gamification offered low-stakes assessments early in the learning process, which substantially improved student retention of material even four years after taking the class. It seems that achievements, leveling up, and similar progress markers in a fun format encode the skills and lessons more effectively and permanently than other teaching formats.

Final Thoughts

Although there’s still some controversy about gamified learning, most of the research suggests it’s at least as good as—and more fun than—more traditional classroom learning. Plenty of studies indicate it’s a far superior model.

What training do you complete in your organization? Can you identify one where you could pilot a gamified instruction model and see whether or not your team’s engagement, performance, and retention improve?

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