in Teaching Strategies

Gamification 101: How to Enhance Your Lesson Plans With Games

Technology has opened up new worlds for teachers that most wouldn’t have dreamed of a few decades ago. Students can get and give instant feedback, schools can connect and learn together from around the world, and there are hundreds of education games and activities across the web.

One of the main features that has caught on recently is gamification. More educators are using technology to discuss concepts through games, rewarding students with points and badges. 

How does gamification work in the classroom? What subjects can it be applied to? It’s time to answer those questions so you can gamify your lessons effectively. 

What is Gamification in a Classroom Setting?

Gamification is the process of bringing elements of gaming to your lesson plans. It doesn’t mean replacing your lessons with games, but rather adding certain attributes (like point systems and badges) to make the content more engaging, explains the team at Kids Academy.

While gamification has become increasingly popular as students grow connected to their smartphones and gaming apps, there are other factors at play. Laura Ascione, managing editor at eSchool Media, looked at some of the factors driving game-based learning in the classroom. A few of the reasons the trend has caught on include:

  • There are high levels of demand from educators who are curious about this option.
  • Gamification is already taking hold in corporate training.
  • Many of these apps are easy to use and compatible with existing technology in the classroom.

Essentially, teachers who want to try gamification can find a few free tools and resources to see what their students think. If the class responds positively, the demand for more will grow.

In fact, schools have technically used gamification for years in the form of test scores and grades, writes Laura Lynch at WordPress learning management system LearnDash. “When you think about it, grades are similar to leveling up in a course, or achieving a high score on a leaderboard. The main reason we don’t think of grades as gamification is because they’re not fun. Grades aren’t a game. They’re final.”

However, when done well, gamification can reduce the stress of test scores and make learning fun. The best teachers present games that reinforce the lessons and apply them in ways that make those lessons stick.

Why Should You Invest in Gamification?

There are many reasons to consider investing in gamification in your classroom, whether you teach lower-level elementary students or prepare advanced high schoolers for college.

Kids Like Playing Games

Teachers tend to give up crafts and games as students leave their early years of learning. Fifth grade teacher Emily Dixon, the 2018-19 Bryan County teacher of the year in Georgia, says teachers switch to worksheets and note-taking as if students grow out of playing games and learning in a fun way. 

“When kids are bored, that’s when we see disengagement. I realized that I needed to give my students a reason to care. We have to humanize school. We have to make kids believe that they are doing something for a reason, for a purpose.”

Games Reinforce Lessons and Promote Problem-Solving

Another reason gamification is popular is because it provides hands-on outlets for students. Game-based projects are meant to turn students into problem-solvers, honing future-ready skills they can use in any subject or situations, writes Aleksandr Hovhannisyan at Classcraft. 

“Regardless of what you’re teaching, the key is to get students thinking and answering questions, not just reading and memorizing,” he says. Instead of students trying to remember abstract concepts they learned in a lesson, they’re able to apply those ideas in games, which boosts both comprehension and retention.

“Gamifying your classroom can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it,” says elementary teacher Amanda Moore. She gamified her classroom to create an engaging way to deliver online lessons related to reading and math. This turned traditional learning into a motivating challenge, with characters and a storyline. Students earned points for their work and teamed up in groups to defeat villains or level up. Moore says that she had researched gamification, but had never expected to see the engagement in the classroom and the results that she did.

How to Bring Gamification to Your Classroom

While gamification is popular with students and many teachers, there are some pitfalls to this form of learning. Follow our guide for starting with gamification so you can avoid these common issues.

Look for Easy Ways to Bring Games to Your Learning Environment

You don’t need to invest in apps and other expensive learning materials to create a gamified classroom, emphasizes former math teacher Joseph McAllister, now learning environment advisor at technology solutions provider CDW-G. “Teachers can create digital breakouts using several Google functions, including sites, forms, drawing, and slides,” he explains as one example.

Jennifer Prescott, a middle school French and Spanish teacher, chose a superhero theme for the gamification of her class. Students created avatars using basic vocabulary and gained experience points by completing grammar quests. These avatars were created with colored pencils and markers.

“Students were engaged and working at their own pace,” she says. “The project lent itself to extension activities and allowed student agency in directing the project.” They could choose which lessons to focus on and solve them on their own time.   

McAllister adds that teachers benefit from gamification by receiving instant feedback on what students understand and where they get stuck, which indicates those lessons on which they need to spend more time. 

Develop Rewards Based on Your Lesson Plans

It is possible for students to become so focused on the game and point system that they don’t pay attention to the lesson, warns the team at early learning curriculum software provider, Waterford. To counter this, they encourage teachers to come up with rewards that are directly tied to the lesson. 

For example, students that win a science-based challenge can help you complete a hands-on experiment in front of the rest of the class. Alternatively, as students reach certain levels, they can participate in various activities like shooting off a bottle rocket with soda and mentos or making slime.

The fact that gamification is associated with rewards, using badges and points, can actually be counterproductive. “Obviously we can’t treat students like Starbucks customers,” says Matthew Farber., Ed.D., former high school teacher, now assistant professor at UNC Colorado. “The journey is to build mastery. The better way to gamify is to put students in an inquiry-based or project-based learning experience. Or give them a task in a narrative frame.” 

This adds meaning to the gamification process. Instead of distracting students or giving the smartest kids the most badges, teachers can develop lessons that build on each other and help students challenge themselves to grow.   

Secondary school teacher Jess Houser says she gamifies student writing projects. Students start out as novices and work up to legends (modeled on the action role-playing video game Skyrim) by gaining experience through writing activities. This encourages students to write more, but in a directed way where they are learning new concepts and putting ideas into practice that are in line with the school curriculum.

All of the rewards and upgrades she uses are tied to the lessons and the core goal of writing better.

Don’t Overwhelm Students With New Tools and Ideas

Pace yourself as you teach your students. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the technology and learning options available to you. Upper elementary teacher Tammy DeShaw suggests introducing a new tool or a new concept to your students, but not both at the same time. This is because your students will be focusing on the technology and the game, not the learning material.   

Additionally, you don’t have to gamify your whole curriculum. Start with a few lessons that are relevant and see how they work. 

“Don’t overuse rewards and don’t try to gamify anything and everything that happens in your classroom,” advises edtech writer Livia Mihai. “If all your energy goes into gamification, there’s not much left for other learning activities, which are still important in the development of children.”

You may find that some lessons are better learned through group projects, worksheets, or simple presentations.

Additional Resources for Gamifying Your Classroom

There are dozens of teachers willing to share their stories of what worked and what didn’t. Plus there are additional resources on the web that you can turn to.

In an article for ASCD In-Service, MacKenzie Masten points to several resources you can turn to for help with gamifying your lessons. She sorts them by category so you can see which ones are free to use.  

Chris Mumford at Hey Teach!, a publication for educators issues by Western Governors University, shares an infographic teachers can use to introduce gamification to their classrooms. It follows many of the same principles discussed above: Start simple, develop a storyline for students to follow, track points for rewards, and share your enthusiasm with students. If you’re having fun with your students, then your students will have fun with you.

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