Education insights

Common pitfalls of classroom gamification and how to avoid them 

For people of all ages, games are much more than a recreational tool for relaxation. Games trigger powerful emotions and human instincts, tapping into our innate desire for curiosity, competition, exploration, persistence toward a reward, and achievement.  

It is no surprise that 67% of students say gamified learning is more engaging and motivating than traditional classes. Gamification has been linked to a 50% improvement in student productivity, and it can also improve student test scores by as much as 34% in some cases, according to a report by Zippia

But like any form of learning, gamification will only produce the maximum benefits when it is approached in the right way. Here are five common pitfalls to gamification and how teachers can overcome them: 

Avoid these pitfalls of gamification 

1. Not personalizing games 

There are as many types of games as there are students, and not every student will connect with every game. 

Do not guess at gamification. Talk to the students or survey them to find out what games they play and what they like about those games. This will help you not only identify where games might help in the classroom, but what game elements will motivate the students. 

Game elements may include role-playing, quests, challenges, reward levels, competition, team play, or game artifacts like badges or magic items. The purpose of games is entertainment, so gamifying learning can work best when you know what the students find fun and enjoyable. 

2. Not setting goals 

When ready to gamify a class or lesson, set learning, procedure, and behavior goals for the game.  

These goals could include learning a specific skill, completing an assignment, participating in class, or working on a project to completion.  

The various elements of the game should contribute to achieving these goals. Be clear on what constitutes full achievement of the goals and how and what rewards will be earned as students move toward the goals. 

3. Setting subtractive, rather than additive goals 

Do not use “grades” as goals. Traditional grading is not only closed-ended, it is subtractive. In other words, teachers start with a rubric defining full mastery (i.e., 100% of goals met) and then subtract points from that rubric when grading student work.  

In a game, however, assessment is additive and open-ended. Players start with no points or achievements and add points or achievements as they progress through the game. The difference in motivational psychology is profound: grades tell you how far you failed to reach a goal, while additive systems tell you how far you still need to go to reach a goal.  

Additive assessment is perhaps the best-studied aspect of gamification of learning. Additive goals may include a points system, level-ups, badges, certificates, or trophies. These additive assessments should correspond with the behavioral and learning goals set for the assignment. For instance, points can be awarded not just for correct answers, but the number of retries, as well.  

It is important to understand that additive assessments are not “rewards” in the traditional sense. Many criticisms of gamified learning have focused on the reliance on extrinsic rewards like points or badges, potentially blunting motivation. Done correctly, however, point totals, badges, levels, and trophies are goals that represent full mastery of the content, skills, and behaviors being learned or practiced. 

4. Not leveraging existing resources 

Although it is a good idea to personalize gamified learning by choosing the right types of games for students, there is no need to start from scratch. 

A good place to start is with proven gamified digital and online resources. The people who have built these resources have already done the work designing and redesigning an immersive learning environment, character roles, game rules, feedback, assessments, points, levels, and rewards.  

Khan Academy, Prodigy Math, Reflex Math, Kahoot!, and Goose Chase are all great places to start. Before using these resources, evaluate them from the standpoint of what is known about the students as well as learning and behavior goals for the resource.  

5. Becoming stagnant 

After some experience using gamified resources, it will become clear what works and what doesn’t for the students. Then it’s time to experiment with game elements in other aspects of the class, like project work, classroom behaviors, participation, research, testing, and teamwork.  

Favorite games can be repeated as long as those games remain engaging. Introduce new games periodically to keep the experience fresh and exciting for all students. 

Let the games begin 

Games, unlike other types of lessons, are open-ended and iterative, meaning they allow for trial-and-error, retries, and discovery. This open-ended model allows for multiple tries, experimentation, learning from failure, and individual goal-setting in which students are rewarded not for effort but through effort. See 4 Gamified Learning Ideas You Can Try 

Gamifying the classroom is, like everything else in education, a journey of discovery, and learning from failure. In other words, it’s like a game. But one with profound and enduring rewards. Make an effort to uncover student preferences, set learning goals, and let the games begin! 

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