The ideal student is one who is intrinsically motivated to connect with the learning materials and to take responsibility for their own progress. These students do not require or seek reward, because the progress they make is reward enough. But for those students who struggle to self-motivate, extrinsic motivation can help them to overcome this psychological hurdle.
Rewards for perseverance and progress can encourage increased engagement, persistence and resilience. Gamification is one of the tools increasingly used by educators to make this leap.
Gamification is the inclusion of game elements into non-game contexts to improve motivation and engagement, essentially making the activity more 'fun'. The success of its implementation relies heavily on the skill of the designer, and their understanding of the underlying psychology of fun.
I have seen many good examples of gamification, but far more that are clumsy or intrusive. The bolting on of PBLs (points, badges and leader boards) seems to be the favoured approach, but vastly underestimates the subtlety of gamification, which should focus on tweaking the approach to an activity rather than the bestowing of a reward.
The designer should keep in mind that they are creating an opportunity for fun, and remember that participation in gamification elements should always be optional. Mandatory fun is not motivating, and poorly designed gamified systems can often lead to a reduction in engagement where the activities appear onerous or manipulative.
Some of the more successful techniques can be very subtle, but essentially come down to the same thing: meaningful choice. On opting to engage with the game element, participants are presented with a decision, the outcome of which has some identifiable and significant impact on their experience with the activity.
This impact can be very diverse, whether it be a change in their perceived role within the group or their progress towards a specific goal, the decision must have impact. If decisions do not influence the outcome, then there is only the illusion of choice and choice stops being meaningful.
The illusion of choice can be dangerous for motivation. Participates quickly learn that irrespective of their decision, all routes follow the same pathway or the pathway is randomised and has no connection to the choice.
Either way, they understand that the outcome does not respect the care and thought put into making the decision-making process. This can lead to frustration and a decrease in motivation, which is detrimental to the process of learning.
It is often interesting to present students with a choice of gamified activities, allowing them to explore their preferences. These may include a range of competitive challenges, personal targets, activity pathways which lead to specialism in a particular subject, or tasks with valid restrictions imposed on them.
This latter category often leads to interesting or innovative choices by the students. It is worth analysing their responses to see how they interpreted the challenge, and how your design may have inadvertently influenced these outcomes.
It is worth considering some game theory, as well as considering that your students may be intimately familiar with the expectations and structure of game elements, bringing preconceived ideas that you had not planned for.
Students' experiences and their innate level of engagement will dramatically alter their perception of gamification. Many gamified systems emulate the tight structure that is typically associated with video games.
This includes features such as on-boarding, boss fights, skill plateaus and end-game scenarios. Students who are familiar with these structures may detect them in your gamified system and be more inclined to engage with the activities. It may be worth studying some game design to better understand how these elements effectively manage player progress.
Those students who are more reflective and self-aware might recognise the process of target setting and review, and more easily see the value in engaging with these systems. It should be remembered though, that those students who are already intrinsically motivated to engage with the core material, and to manage their progress effectively, may regard the gamified elements as unnecessary additions that do not enhance the experience.
It is important not to alienate these students, and to plan for their rejection of gamification as a concept. This can be done by embedding the optional nature of gamification, and keeping mind that it should always be an opportunity to enhance the fun inherent to the task.
Nicola Bell is a physics lecturer at The City of Liverpool College