3 Gamification Strategies To Spark Student Attention And Ignite Interest

3 Gamification Strategies To Spark Student Attention And Ignite Interest
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Summary: Evidence suggests gamification strategies can be used to initially engage students in content, and then once they're hooked, they can become intrinsically motivated to continue to engage and learn more of your content by their own volition.

How To Spark Student Attention Following These 3 Gamification Strategies

Learning should be a game, and a fun one at that. While gamification is simply adding extrinsic motivators or game-like elements to non-game environments, using gamification doesn't have to be all about extrinsic motivation as students need to be intrinsically motivated to most effectively engage in course content.


Specifically, gamification tends to work well for online courses and formal learning in general, because schools already have a number of extrinsic motivators directly embedded, like points and grades. However, similar to using educational technology in a course, gamification should be used as a tool and not as the focal point of a learning activity [1].

When students develop an interest in course content they can internalize the desire to learn [2] and rather than focusing on the extrinsic motivators they instead build intrinsic motivation to learn the content. "The driving force behind [intrinsic motivation] is enjoyment, curiosity, fascination,...or a sense that the task or subject matter is relevant," (209) [3]. Unfortunately, we can't force students to become intrinsically motivated as control relates to extrinsic motivators. If we can't force students to become intrinsically motivated, then all we can do is provide students with the environment in which they could potentially become intrinsically motivated [4]. Enter gamification.

We can give students the kindling and chopped wood to start the fire, but each student must choose to light their own match. However, in some circumstances we can use gamification as the extrinsic impetus to spark student attention and ignite interest, which brings them one step closer to starting the fire of intrinsic motivation.


John Keller's ARCS Model of Motivation is structured as a framework to build student motivation through 4 main categories: Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. While each of the four categories should be addressed, we will consider how gamification can influence the attention category. Keller [5] provides 3 process questions to consider when designing for student attention in a course:

  • Perceptual Arousal - What can I do to capture their interest?
  • Inquiry Arousal - How can I stimulate an attitude of inquiry?
  • Variability - How can I maintain their attention?

I recently had the opportunity to incorporate gamification elements into a fully online higher education course. In answering these three questions I found myself gravitating toward 3 overarching gamification strategies that have been found to be successful for Generation Z students. As you develop your own gamification strategy to ignite student attention and spark interest, consider the following 3 strategies to guide your implementation:

1. Set The Scene

Game environment and storytelling are at the heart of gamification and can engage perceptual arousal. All good games have an engaging introductory story or character backstory that sets the stage for what is to come. Utilize the narrative for storytelling to inspire, engage and motivate students to take further action. Setting the scene allows you to introduce students to the course narrative and simultaneously onboard students to the course structure. The narrative should come first, and then planning for authentic challenges can commence.


I introduced my students to the course narrative by changing standard terminology like students to recruits, and assignments to challenges. It's important to note that simply changing terms in a course is not gamification. However, if changing terms fits into your course narrative and is embedded throughout the course, then you're on the right track. A course introduction video can be used to set the scene for your course narrative:

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2. Start The Journey

To stimulate an attitude of inquiry start by engaging students in a naïve task to engage them in the process of learning through a quest. In coaching sports, this would be viewed as designing game-like drills or practicing situations that the athletes would actually come across in competition. This type of activity focuses on learning being a journey and that students don't only participate in learning activities simply to demonstrate learning, but in some cases to build understanding and skills over time. This concept of a learning journey allows instructors to leverage microlearning. Microlearning is a good fit with gamification as it structures smaller chunks of content repetitively which can increase long-term comprehension.


I initially engaged students in an academic integrity unit to start the course, but students could earn a valuable tool by completing that module: the quiz key tool. This tool was represented as a digital badge that students could earn and allowed them to "unlock" quizzes in the course for unlimited attempts. Rather than serving as assessments, the quizzes in my course served as low-stakes microlearning opportunities to reinforce content comprehension as part of their learning journey.

3. Allow For Modding

When we think of learning as a game then we can design our courses in a way that will maintain student attention throughout the semester. Planning a student-centered course design allows flexibility for mod projects or individualized experiences that allow students to take ownership of their own learning. One way to simultaneously allow for modding and provide variability for students is to create Easter eggs which are hidden messages or secret features embedded in a game. Students learn better when it doesn't come easy and they must problem-solve through desirable difficulties, and Easter eggs can provide helpful hints or cheats to help students progress when they get stuck.


I used weekly case studies as learning activities. Several of which provided desirable difficulties for the students which required them to put in significant effort and problem-solve to complete. To help students with their case study challenges, and to add some variability I hid Easter eggs in the form of bug icons which linked to clues for the game narrative in the course but also contained hints on how to complete more difficult portions of the case studies. Students could earn a point for finding and sharing the clue in a class forum that they had found the clue. By having students share that they found the clue it helped to ensure that students who weren't familiar with the concept of Easter eggs would also remember to search for the clues.


Gamification is simply adding game-like features to non-game environments, however, to be most successful, gamification strategies should be embedded into online courses intentionally with a focus on student learning. Gamification is a tool, and shouldn't just serve as a flashy add-on. Utilizing these strategies can spark student attention and ignite interest in building intrinsic motivation to learn the course content. These gamification strategies also pair well with evidence-based instructional strategies that have been shown to improve student learning. In any case, learning in an online course can be designed to be a fun and intrinsically motivating game.


  1. Farber, M. (2017). Gamify your classroom: A field guide to game-based learning. Peter Lang.
  2. Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.
  3. Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2017). Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self‐determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational behavior, 26(4), 331-362.
  5. Keller, J. M. (1987). The systematic process of motivational design. Performance Improvement, 26(9‐10), 1-8.