Gamification as an Effective Instructional Strategy

S.R. Aurora reflects on the article, “How Fun Overcame Fear: The Gamification of a Graduate-Level Statistics Course,” written with Robert J. Chico and Rachel M. Reed and recently published in the Journal of Management Education.

Would you smile to see comments like these on your course evaluations:

  • “The gamification of the course actually made me excited to learn about and engage with [the subject]!”
  • “Amazing interactions with the class as an entity made learning a difficult subject less stressful.”
  • “Honestly loved this course all around.” 

What if I told you that the preceding comments came from a master’s level statistics class targeted at non-traditional adult learners who, for the most part, were afraid of statistics, had been away from school for quite a few years, and might or might not have had any prior experience with statistics?

And what if I added that it was an asynchronously online class conducted in an accelerated time frame of just seven weeks? 

As an avid gamer and an experiential educator, I have always believed that people learn best when they are having fun. When I transitioned from in-person to fully online teaching (long before COVID-19, by the way), one of my greatest commitments was the implementation of experiential exercises in online contexts in order to help my asynchronous students reap the benefits of engaging holistically in the learning process. I have had small successes over the years in my use of creative assignments, such as mobile app games and peer coaching, to provide online students with the fun and social experience they seek.

Then the big challenge came: I needed to design and teach an introductory statistics course—covering topics from means and standard deviations to multiple regressions and ANOVAs— for my department’s new master’s program. Well, okay, everyone loves statistics, right? On top of everything else that they need to manage during a global pandemic? I knew the typical academic format would not work; it was time to spice things up and make statistics more fun!

Gamification—the use of video game elements such as achievements, badges, ranking boards, avatars, adventures, and customized goals in non-game contexts—is certainly not a new thing. The idea has been around for at least two decades, and K-12 educators have pioneered efforts to use gamification to transform education. My four-year-old son was learning with Khan Academy long before his mother made her students play statistics games. I would also bet that many of us know at least one loyalty program in which we are motivated to reach certain numbers of points or levels in exchange for some kind of reward. Research has shown that the use of game elements in educational settings creates an environment conducive to learning and generates long-lasting motivation and engagement among learners

I decided to go with the low-tech route of gamification due to concerns that students would find it overwhelming to navigate too many third-party tools and extensions. My gamified course uses learning elements that more traditional lecture courses would use, such as modules, pages, quizzes, reading assignments, lecture videos, tutorial videos, self-check quizzes, practice quizzes, tests, discussion boards, and reflection prompts. I turned the whole class into a game by using a comic-style textbook and adding gamification elements: badges, leaderboards, quests to complete, bosses to defeat, rewards to be earned, game money to scavenge, items to buy to help students’ adventures, and silly avatars that react to students’ quiz responses. The best part? Instructors can easily create all of this content using simple tech tools that they may already have or can get for free. I used Microsoft Powerpoint, Playposit, Screencast-O-Matic, and Discord. I explained their usage a little more in this podcast about my gamified statistics class, which has since been certified by Quality Matters as a well-conceived, well-designed, and well-presented online course.

Professional headshots of S.R. Aurora, Robert J. Chico, and Rachel M. Reed.
Left to right: S.R. Aurora, Robert J. Chico, and Rachel M. Reed.

To put it more precisely, the objectives behind gamifying my statistics course were to (1) create a positive learning experience for students and (2) encourage interactions in the course in order to (3) facilitate effective knowledge acquisition. Through examining student data and feedback, my co-authors and I sought to qualitatively and quantitatively present evidence of learning and to answer the research question: How did the gamification design accomplish these objectives (or not)? Our findings showed evidence that gamification worked well in achieving these objectives, for the most part.

We contend that gamification is an effective instructional strategy and a technologies-enabling disruption that could enhance the teaching and learning processes in management education. We advance previous gamification research by documenting a process of gamifying a course by intentionally combining the Technology, Pedagogy, and Content Knowledge (TPACK) competency framework and the Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA) design framework to derive both theoretically and practically motivated gamification designs. More so, since gamification is a design process, its mechanisms can be flexibly applied in any management course regardless of topic content. Overall, we hope to show instructors that there are many possibilities for the addition of gamification attributes in their courses under development and already existing. A little fun can go a long way!

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S.R. Aurora, Robert J. Chico, and Rachel M. Reed.

S.R. Aurora (a.k.a. Mai P. Trinh) joined Arizona State University as an assistant professor of organizational leadership in August 2016. She is a faculty affiliate in the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment, and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU.

Robert J. Chico is an incoming PhD student at the University of Washington studying employee voice behavior, intersectionality, and leader emergence.

Rachel M. Reed is a research analyst and PhD candidate at Arizona State University.

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