My Gamification Journal: Part 1

Gamifying my 5th grade math course has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my teaching career. After two and a half years of introducing gamified elements, I am finding a number of benefits:

  • Students are learning by exploring
  • Their education programs are truly differentiated by content, pace, and path (which leads to higher engagement)
  • I spend less time performing rote/repetitive tasks such as grading and delivering canned lectures
  • I spend more time having meaningful interactions with my students
  • Students cover more content in the course and develop better mathematical reasoning skills
  • We have more class time for enrichment, such as games and projects

At this point, there are so many systems in place, that the gamified environment part of my class could almost function on its own. Most of my planning involves eliciting student feedback, involving parents in the process, making minor tweaks, and helping guide students in crafting their own creative content. As I’ve shared my process with other educators, through presentations and writings, I have come to see that providing a still photo of what my class looks like now doesn’t capture the experience in a way that’s easily reproducible. When I first started using Khan Academy, I could never have predicted how it would come to be used in my class. I decided a journal of my experience could demonstrate that a gamified classroom doesn’t come out of a box: it starts with a problem to be solved, it’s designed around the specific needs of each individual class, and it happens in baby steps with a lot of trial and error.

Step 1: A Problem to be Solved (Fall 2013)

I started my teaching career as a humanities teacher, and taught only English and history for the first 10 years I was in the classroom. three years ago I was asked to teach 5th grade math in addition to language arts. I attended the Summer Math & Science Workshop (Now held at The Fay School, but previously at Dana Hall), and in a course taught by Lainie Schuster got a glimpse of the potential to change how math was taught by focusing on games and activities that teach mathematical reasoning as a precursor to algorithms (shortcuts/processes).

Once I got into my classroom, I soon realized that the materials provided left me dangerously unprepared for the needs of my students: the 5th grade text began with decimal place value and operations, while a number of my students struggled with whole number place value and operations. The following unit centered on complicated word problems with volume and rate and time, and they assumed students had a solid grounding in fractions. As I got to know my students better, I realized that many lacked the ability to demonstrate the most basic operations (2+3 or 4-1) using manipulatives or diagrams, even though most could solve these using traditional algorithms.

Student performance on quizzes from the text was poor, and when I assigned worksheets or homework from the text, some students did great work, others turned in work that was incomplete or demonstrated poor understanding, and some turned in nothing at all. I would spend hours after each assignment correcting student work and struggling to understand the errors in their processes. Even when I could figure out the error, trying to remember which student made which error or to communicate improvements in writing was almost impossible. It took several months for me to develop an understanding of individual students’ conceptual understanding of math, and even then, I struggled to find the time to connect with each student to help them correct conceptual errors or provide differentiated material that was appropriately challenging.

Step 2: Research (December 2013)

I realized that the way I was teaching math was not efficient enough to meet the wide range of student needs in my classroom and that I was spending too much time performing activities that could probably be done better by a machine. I had used Google Apps for Education to promote collaboration in history and Language Arts classes, and I’d seen 1.0 style math games where students solve simple equations for points, but I was a relative newbie regarding cutting edge EdTech. I was looking for something that could adjust to student needs and report on progress to the teacher.  I figured either there was something out there that could automate much of the work I was doing and, if not, it needed to be built.

Math Blaster, a 1.0 style math game

I consulted my school’s director of technology, Aaron Grill, and he introduced me to some of the terms I was describing, such as “Teacher Dashboard,” and “Adaptive Learning,” as well as to a wesbite called Khan Academy. I’ve spent so much time using and talking about this platform in the past two years, I’ve had friends repeatedly ask me why I don’t work for Khan Academy, and I’ve even had students accuse me of being Sal Khan in disguise.

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Problem set from Khan Academy

I’ve learned the hard way not to introduce a platform to my classes until I feel comfortable as an end user – when I’ve tried to roll out programs based on marketing materials or online reviews (sadly, the line between the two can sometimes be blurry), I’ve encountered apps that were glitchy, hard to understand, or sometimes still under construction. Once I had played with Khan Academy for a few hours on my own, I knew this was the well-designed and responsive platform I was looking for.

Step 3: Roll- Out (January 2014)

Once I was confident that Khan Academy was the right tool to use with my students, the next step was getting them to use it. I started by creating classes and setting the grade level to grade 5. In class, I used Khan Academy’s search bar to find something related to what we were currently learning and used the projector to show the activity, ‘Ordering Fractions,’ to the class. We tried some practice problems, and I typed in the answers the students volunteered. I also demonstrated how they could access videos and hints when they needed support.

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Video suggestion sidebar

Then, I assigned the students 15 minutes of homework on Khan Academy that night. I chose to assign minutes rather than number of problems or even number of completed activities, for several reasons. First, I wanted to measure student effort – if students completed the same activities, some would finish much faster than others. Struggling students would struggle to meet basic expectations, while advanced students would breeze through. I wanted to ensure that each student was being challenged appropriately. If someone spent 15 minutes of genuine effort learning a new skill, but only got two questions right, I wanted to reward that as much as someone who spent 15 minutes getting everything right – since the platform is designed to give students work at their own level, the student who gets a lot of questions right will be rewarded by moving forward to more challenging content.

First Impressions

Right away, I realized that while I had solved some problems I was encountering in class, I had also created a whole new set of problems to be solved. While students had been challenged by the content of their textbooks, they (and their parents) were at least familiar with the format.

Once students were solving problems on their computers, they encountered new challenges. The largest issue I found was that when students wrote their answers on a piece of paper, they were more likely to write out the steps they took to solve the problem. When working on a computer, students tried to do more in their head, or they used the awful ‘scratchpad’ function built into Khan Academy.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about the specific instructions I gave students and parents to help make their use of the platform more effective. If I were to go back to the beginning, though, the biggest change I would make would be to have students spend several periods using the platform in class before asking students to complete anything at home – that way I could observe their work and give more feedback on their process before they were expected to use Khan independently.

Despite the challenges, there were enough initial benefits to using the adaptive learning platform that I decided it was worth working out the kinks. Although I was still learning how to read the data Khan was generating, even at the outset I could tell which students were putting in the right amount of time at home and which were not (some were even spending too much time!). Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.46.00 AM

I could also tell a great deal about their persistence and willingness to use resources. A student who gets one problem incorrect and moves to another activity requires a very different type of support from a student who tries the same problem 20 times and keeps getting it wrong, yet doesn’t use a hint or a video. I was always hoping to see the student who got a few right, a few wrong, took a hint or two, and then completed five in a row correct.

Next time, I’ll go over four more steps:

  • The process rules I instituted to help students use the platform effectively
  • How I used points to incentivize students and add excitement
  • How I learned to better read the data being generated and choose the right recommendations for my students.
  • How we went from using Khan Academy as an independent learning tool to part of a process of gamified learning in leveled groups

Your Impressions

Are you dying to add a gamified learning thread to your class but unsure where to begin? Are you deep into the process and have something to share? Do you think the whole gamification thing is a fad that’s past its peak? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


How You Play the Game

Taking the first step to gamified learning can seem overwhelming, especially if you are the type of teacher who likes to create everything from scratch. There are a number of apps and online platforms that already exist as gamified learning environments and others that are not designed as games but lend themselves well to gamification.

First let’s look at the distinction between game-based learning and gamification: gamification, as its name implies, refers to making a learning experience more like a game. Game-based learning is learning that happens within a game. In both cases, it’s important to note that if you are going to take the time to incorporate gaming into your classroom, you should try to go beyond the classic ‘quiz game’ in which students memorize facts and earn points by regurgitating them. While these games can build excitement, they generally focus on the least meaningful type of learning (memorization) and they reward and celebrate the top students, who already know the material. Instead, games are more effective as a tool to drive instruction and create an environment in which each student is incentivized to develop skills according to her individual needs.

Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning is the use of a game to drive instruction. There are plenty of low and high-tech versions. Some game-based learning merely involves identifying learning standards that a game addresses. For example, students playing Battleship are developing their understanding of plotting points using coordinates, so with a little creativity, you could create a lesson that connects playing Battleship to the standards, such as the 5th Grade Common Core geometry standard. MIT and ZeroRobotics have created a version of Battleship that uses an xy coordinate graph rather than the classic number-letter system.

Other educational games actually create an environment that is designed to help guide students, step-by-step through the development of a skill-set. These include games like LightBot and DragonBox Algebra (available in 5+ and 12+ versions). Both of these games allow for personalized, differentiated learning. In LightBot, students create a series of instructions to guide a robot through a maze – to succeed, students must use spatial and sequential reasoning, problem solving, and trouble-shooting skills. The skills a student develops in this game are most easily applied to coding (computer programming), but I have also found it helpful in developing a problem-solving mindset (iteration, troubleshooting) that is very helpful in solving math problems, particularly those that involve multiple steps.

Scene from LightBot

DragonBox is one of the most creative educational apps I’ve seen. The game starts with a dragon in a box who ‘wants to be alone.’ Students earn a series of ‘powers’ that allow them to ‘isolate’ the box from other elements. Many of my students have told me that the game “isn’t math, it’s just fun,” which seems to be just what the designers intended. As students reach higher levels, it gradually looks more and more like Algebra, and by the time students learn the symbology, they have already become familiar with concepts such as balancing equations, opposite operations, and the distributive property.

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Scene from DragonBox

Gamified Learning

Whereas game-based learning involves a game being played within a course of study, gamified learning tends to be more about creating a course or a classroom environment that includes principals of gaming. The games I’ve described above, while great for self-paced learning and increasing engagement, do not contain a teacher dashboard, so it can be hard to monitor student effort and progress or to align them with grades or performance objectives.

In next week’s post, I’ll share the personal journey I took in gamifying my 5th grade math classroom. While I didn’t set out to gamify my class, as I monitored and adjusted the way I used Khan Academy with my students, I eventually ended up with a gamified class. I’ll share each of the stages I went through in this process and why I took the steps that I did.

Game-based or Gamified?

How would you introduce gaming into your classroom? Do you think it would be easier to gamify learning or to incorporate game-based learning? Which do you believe would be (or have you found to be) more effective?

Gaming the System

It’s hard to attend an education conference, especially an EdTech conference, these days without hearing about Gamified Learning. As with any buzzword, it can be hard to tell the difference between a bandwagon worth hopping on and empty hype. It can be equally hard to pin down a definition, let alone best practices, for a term that is just gaining traction. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Gamified Learning really means, and why it may have the potential to increase student engagement and the quality of learning.

A Student’s Dilemma

Every day, our students are faced with a dilemma – should they do what they feel like doing, or should they do what their teachers are telling them to do. Traditionally, educators thought that students need to just ‘do what they’re told,’ because following directions will prepare them for the way the real world works.

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Developments in the way we think about student learning have challenged these assumptions in several ways. We now know that students learn in different ways, so when we can give them options about the pace or path of their learning ( Differentiated Instruction – Courtesy ASCD), engagement and achievement increase. We also know that while taking notes and filling in worksheets may help students memorize a list of facts or a procedure, these are rarely the most effective methods; perhaps more concerning is that teaching through direct instruction almost always requires students to remember (the lowest level of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy), and rarely asks students to evaluate, analyze, or apply. Sadly, much of a typical student’s school-day does not even require they understand the facts and procedures they are expected to remember.

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Educators are also beginning to appreciate that, even assuming we know more about the skills students would need to succeed in today’s world, the world that students will inherit may require a different skill set, known as 21st Century Skills. Creative educators have looked at the way games engage students for hours on end, and rather than fighting the draw of games, they’ve studied principles of gaming and sought to incorporate these principles into their classes. Part of the beauty of Gamified Learning is that researchers find that games do more than just engage students: they create environments that mimic real world situations, and good games require higher-order thinking skills to succeed.

Principles of Gaming

Gamified Learning pioneers have identified a number of elements that educators can borrow from game designers in creating GL environments. While not all games incorporate the same principles, here are some elements common to many GL environments.

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INCENTIVES: Gamified Learning involves creating an environment where virtual rewards are tied to the objectives we want students to achieve. As such, points and badges are central elements to most GL initiatives. Depending on our educational objectives and what will motivate our students, achievements can be celebrated publicly via leaderboards or progress bars, or they can be a private way for students to evaluate their own mastery.

When points from games translate directly into a student’s grade, there is a powerful incentive for student achievement. Of course, we need to be careful when using a game to determine student grades. Before tying game results to student grades, I would suggest consulting research on the effects of using grades to incentivize learning, such as this article from CBE Life Sciences Education by Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner. One key finding is that grades can incentivize rote learning, but can actually detract from higher-order thinking. In addition, grades can have a number of harmful effects on students, and often inadvertently incentivize behavior we do not want to encourage.

In my own classes, the amount of time students spend working on an online platform influences their grades, but I don’t grade them on their achievement in the game (number of correct answers or level of mastery). That way, incentives are tied to a low-order, but necessary, component of learning (task completion), while the more complex and personal process of developing mastery is celebrated informally, or considered an end in itself.

EXPLORATION: Another aspect of gaming that can translate to an educational setting is the idea of exploration. In a game, students learn about their environment by trying things out. Very few students sit down and read a manual before trying to beat a level in their favorite game. They learn by trial and error, reinforcing habits that are essential to learning and innovation, specifically the idea that mistakes are essential steps on the road to discovery and understanding. Exploration also helps students see that their response to making a mistake (ideally with persistence and flexible thinking) determines how successful they are in attaining mastery.

PERSONALIZATION: Another benefit to Gamified Learning is the personalization that is present in gaming. If a child wants to try a new video game, she does not start at the same level of a peer who is more experienced. She begins at a level that challenges her to an appropriate degree. As she achieves mastery of one level she moves on to the next. A student can adjust her starting point, pace, and even path to meet her individual needs.

MODDING/HACKING: The opportunity to modify games is yet another way that students can take ownership of their learning through gamification. As students become familiar with the games we introduce them to (digital or otherwise), they will often come up with ideas for modifying the game, adding their own content, or even extending the game into other contexts. Providing such opportunities can help students reach the highest level of learning on Bloom’s taxonomy, Creating. It also indicates that students are highly engaged in the learning process that you as a teacher/coach have succeeded in creating,  making use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility model as described by Fisher and Frey.

The Institute of Play has a treasure trove of resources to learn more about and to implement GL in your school or classroom.

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Games Vs. Gamification

It can be tempting to think we’ve gamified our class because we have created a fun activity, but true gamification requires that we have taken significant steps to put students at the center of their learning by creating a learning environment that they can navigate on their own. Many of us have been using games to spice up our classes for years, but playing Jeopardy with your class is not the same as Gamified Learning. In a quiz game, students are incentivized with points, but the learning objective is still the simple memorization of facts. In addition, these games are a check that learning has taken place, whereas in GL, the learning occurs through the playing of the game. A quiz game does nothing to personalize the learning objectives or path toward learning objectives for each student. If the teacher is at the front of the room directing the entire class, it’s a good clue that you just have a game rather than Gamified Learning.

While the difference between games and GL can seem subtle, the resulting impact on their learning can be enormous. Keep in mind that introducing one element of gamification at a time can still be a worthwhile objective, and is often the most effective way to bring about the type of mindset shift that true GL requires. In next week’s post, we’ll look at a few models for Gamified Learning and best practices for getting GL off the ground in your school.

Game On?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this week’s topic – have you tried Gamified Learning in your class? Do you have any questions about how to get started? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.