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Published September 3, 2021 | English (Second Language)

Gamification, Squared: Keeping Students Engaged with 2 Types of Gamification

While the return to face-to-face classes is definitely beneficial to the teacher-student relationship and interaction between students, it might also diminish the frequency and quality of students’ engagement with course content. Indeed, students may be more likely to see face-to face courses as content blocks they only engage with once a week, in comparison with distance courses, especially those including content and activities delivered asynchronously. To counter this potential undesirable effect of returning to the classroom, I decided to implement 2 forms of gamification in my English as a second language (ESL) course: content gamification and structural gamification.

Structural and content gamification

In essence, gamification is “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” The approach is meant to foster motivation and engagement, 2 attitudes that have proven to be heavily correlated with student success.

Granted, research in educational contexts remains inconclusive on the assumptions that gamification can improve grades, attendance and participation. This does not mean, though, that gamification cannot be used with success to make specific learning contexts more engaging. As a psychologically driven approach, gamification uses game-based mechanics to target the desire and willingness to do something:motivation.

Depending on how these game mechanics are integrated into course content, 2 types of gamification can be identified:

  • Structural gamification
    • The application of game elements with no changes to the learning content itself. The gamification experience acts as a layer on top of the subject matter.
    • Game mechanics include badges and leaderboards, which can be correlated with any type of learning content.
    • The learning objectives and outcomes are not a part of the gamification process; only achievements and results are gamified.
  • Content gamification
    • The application of game elements to adapt the learning content to make it more game-like.
    • Game mechanics include storytelling, leveled challenges, and the freedom to fail in order to immerse learners in the learning content.
    • The learning objectives and outcomes are (in part) met through the exploration and appropriation of the gamified content.

Both types of gamification seem to have advantages and disadvantages:

  • Structural gamification is easy to implement, but its effects may wear off quickly if the rewards don’t appeal to the students.
  • Content gamification enhances the learning content itself by making it more immersive, but can be time-consuming or complex to design.

To maximize the potential positive impact of gamifying the learning experience while offsetting some of the disadvantages, I decided to use a cohesive mix of both structural and content gamification with the students in my Anglais spécialisé I course, offered in the Video Game Design program at Cégep Limoilou.

Structural gamification: learner badges

A few years ago, I implemented structural gamification by automatically awarding students badges whenever they completed a learning module on Moodle. While students liked the badge system, it seemed to do little to stimulate their motivation beyond working to get a good grade. I realized the badges were too closely tied in with assignments and academic achievement.

Example of a badge awarded based solely on activity completion in Moodle

Inspired by Jean-François Sénéchal’s use of badges as rewards and trophies in the university course he teaches, I decided to redesign my previous badge system by expanding and enhancing it. To do so, I hacked the Adventure Badges model. I kept the 3 broad categories in which it awards badges:

  • Emotional Badges encourage students to successfully navigate their way through the emotions that arise during the learning process.
  • Responsibility Badges celebrate moments in which students take actions that help make the classroom a better place.
  • Learner Badges recognize the actions students take to be successful in their learning.

In the Fall 2021 semester, I am putting a first iteration of the new badges to the test with 1 group of ESL students in our Video Game Design program. After experimenting and potentially tweaking the system, I am hoping to eventually expand the use of badges to all my courses and groups.

During my first class, I presented the badges system to my students. Then, they brainstormed ideas for badges in small groups (4-5 students). This not only acted as an icebreaker activity, it also allowed students co-design the badges they work toward, giving them agency in the process. There is also a metacognitive benefit, as the activity encouraged students to think about desirable learning behaviours and outcomes, and their indicators.

Using a laptop, each team accessed a virtual white board that I had previously set up to reflect the 3 categories of badges. I gave them 20 minutes to brainstorm and discuss ideas. Only badges that all team members agreed on could be added. I opted for a cloud-based whiteboard on the Miro platform for practical reasons:

  • Students could easily add, erase and move around ideas
  • Each team could present their whiteboard by using the classroom projector
  • I was able to quickly retrieve the badge ideas retained afterward

Example of a virtual whiteboard used to brainstorm badge ideas in small groups

Then, each team determined their favourite badge idea in each category and the teams took turns projecting their virtual whiteboard to the class to present their 3 proposed badges. I also proposed 3 badges of my own.

Because some teams had similar ideas, we ended up with a selection of 21 badges. I harmonized the descriptions using I-statements and polishing grammar where necessary. I then added the badges to the course on Moodle, associating an icon with each.

All badges are set to be teacher-assigned, because none of them are based solely on activity completion within Moodle itself. To engage students continually, the badges concern actions and behaviours that extend beyond the classroom. When students are collaborating in groups, they have the possibility to nominate a teammate for a specific badge by submitting a Microsoft Form. This shifts the mood from (friendly) competition to cooperation.

Some of the 21 badges related to emotions, responsibility and learning, co-developed by students

Of course, badges can be hosted elsewhere than Moodle. For example, Open Badges can be integrated into Microsoft Teams through the Badgr app. Several other free standalone platforms exist online.

Content gamification: a language skills training app

During the pandemic, I used Genially to create weekly revision quizzes for my students to help them master course content and skills in between synchronous class sessions. I was impressed with the participation rate, and when polled, students indicated they not only found these interactive quizzes useful, but also entertaining. Therefore, I decided to upgrade the gamified content offer in my course this semester.

Example of an interactive revision quiz designed with Genially

One of my goals with this experiment is to extend engagement beyond the classroom by motivating students to interact with learning content regularly in between scheduled classes. To achieve this, I required students to download Elevate, an app presenting mini games focusing on diverse language skills that fit the level and objectives of my course. This is a paid app, which I offset by not asking students to purchase a grammar book. It works on iOS and Android.

Example of an Elevate mini game focused on synonyms

Every day, Elevate reminds students to complete a “workout”— a series of 3 mini games. As long as they complete their daily workout, students maintain a continuous “streak.” This motivates them to dedicate at least 5 minutes every day to practise English, thus keeping them engaged in between our weekly classes. And since the content is gamified, they don’t even have the impression they’re doing homework!

To keep student accountable, at the end of every week, I ask them to submit a screenshot of the app’s “Profile” screen, which summarizes their main achievements. They do this on Moodle, but this is possible through any learning management system.

In line with my college’s student evaluation policy and the “freedom to fail” principle inherent to games, I do not award bonus points for these activities. Beyond the motivational power of the game-like content itself, I encourage students to play the mini-games on a daily basis by tying them in with the badge system described above: some badges can only be obtained by engaging with Elevate diligently.

Example of the Elevate “Profile” screen summarizing the player’s achievements, which students submit on a weekly basis

Designing your own gamified content

Similar apps are sadly not available for all fields of study. However, you can also gamify content yourself:

  • Genial.ly offers templates for many types of interactive quizzes and games.
  • H5P allows you to create and integrate interactive content and games into Moodle or a WordPress site.
  • Polling apps, such as Kahoot and Socrative, can be used in class or assigned as self-paced activities to be taken in between classes.
  • Quizlet allows students to create cue cards individually or collaboratively and then turns their content into mini games.
  • Factile turns revision questions into a Jeopardy-style quiz.

While it may not be viable to create content for students to interact with on a daily basis, a simple gamified weekly revision is already a worthy implementation of the content gamification mechanic.

Preliminary outcomes and observations

As pointed out in the first section of this text, it is difficult to quantify the impact of gamification on learner behaviour and student success in a scientific manner. However, I find it very encouraging to see my students work actively toward badges. Most of them have also maintained a continuous streak on the Elevate app for the first 3 weeks of the semester, which I consider a success in and by itself, as they have already engaged with class content more often than they would have in a traditional course setup with 15 once-weekly meetings. At the end of the semester, I will ask students to complete a perception survey to obtain their feedback on the gamification experience and how it affected their learning.

Combining elements of structural and content gamification makes the experience more immersive and holistic, but you can of course start off by experimenting with only one type of gamification in your course! If you do so, I would love to read in the comments how you set things up!

About the Author

Andy Van Drom

Andy Van Drom enseigne l'anglais, langue seconde, et la linguistique depuis 2005, d'abord à l'Université Laval, puis, depuis 2012, au Cégep Limoilou. Après avoir terminé des études doctorales en linguistique, il travaille maintenant à temps partiel à une maîtrise en enseignement collégial avec Performa. Andy a également publié 3 manuels chez Pearson ERPI et a développé plusieurs ressources éducatives libres en format numérique. Son grand intérêt pour les outils technopédagogiques et l'apprentissage actif l'ont mené à travailler avec Profweb, où il est éditeur depuis 2017. En 2019, il a reçu une Mention d'honneur de l'AQPC et le prix EF Excellence Award in Language Teaching.

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