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April 14, 2016

Teaching at Pitt: Gamifying your course



Over the past decade, gamification, or the introduction of game-like elements into non-game contexts, has grown from a business consulting fad to an interdisciplinary framework for understanding human behavior. As a result, some educators have begun blending game design principles with classroom practices, with the intent of motivating students to explore course material in deeper ways.

While incorporating games into your classroom may seem foreign and intimidating, there are a couple of strategies that intersect closely with existing academic fundamentals that you may be familiar with: motivation and iteration.

Imagine a course where, on the first day of class, the instructor tells his students, “Congratulations! You have a zero in this course.” You might be thinking that he is trying to get students to drop the course to lighten his teaching load, but he is not. Rather, he is telling them where they are starting and then describing what they have to achieve in order to raise their grade as high, or as low, as they deem satisfactory.

This mirrors the way games of all kinds award points to show progress. Inverting the way we often think about assignments and grading, where students start at 100 and lose points as they do things wrong, encourages students to work toward achievement rather than to work against failure. This is a classic example of using positive reinforcement in order to motivate behavior.

You also can think about motivating students via gamified structures in other ways, such as using Courseweb’s “Achievement” function to create rewards for students who complete certain assignments or score in certain ranges.

Here are a few ways to elaborate on this idea:

• Achievements can be visually represented by virtual
ribbons or badges that either are just aesthetic or that
link to your course content in some way.

• Assignments can be hidden from students until they
“unlock” them by completing prior assignments. This
allows you to automate the coursework somewhat, and
lets students work at their own pace.

• You can set up Milestone achievements that will allow
students to accumulate small victories on the way to a
larger goal, such as a prestige badge.

Courseweb’s “Achievement” function also allows for iteration:

• Students can have the opportunity to revise and
resubmit assignments until they achieve a grade that
unlocks other assignments or rewards.

• You can sequence assignments in order to break down
larger tasks into component parts.

Finally, there are some common pitfalls to avoid when introducing gamified elements into your course design:

• Avoid using badges for their own sake. Tie rewards into
some sort of course content, even if it’s just letting
students virtually work their way up the career ladder in
your field.

• Avoid adding work in the form of gamified structures,
which may undermine your goals in gamifying in the
first place. Instead, use games to inspire new ways of
structuring content delivery, student engagement with
material, and rewarding encouraged behaviors.

• Avoid rankings or declaring winners and losers, unless
you are in a field that thrives on competition.

• Avoid generalizing about your students: Not all of them
are game players, and not all of them will be excited by

Wil  Upchurch is a CIDDE teaching fellow.

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