Gamification: Does it work in the classroom?

to the idea of utilizing game characteristics and game features for non-game applications in order to make them more fun, more engaging, and perhaps educationally more effective. Among the most regularly applied features is goal-setting including progress paths and badges, awarding the player to identify goal completion. Kimberly Ling argued that the most motivating goals are those just out of comfortable reach and that this technique is most effective when users can see their progress toward the end goal. Also, people often increase engagement and efforts when they believe that they are close to a specific goal. A related technique is providing badges – little but visible indicators of achievement, success, and ability – perhaps even status.  Even if players never earn the badges, through viewing a set reachable and accomplishable challenges they come to understand valued activities within the system. Of course, there is a dark side to it; tokenizing the achievements of players bears the danger of provoking ‘avoidance of competition’ and ‘fear of failure’. Other techniques are leveling (i.e., granting players access to new levels of the system – just novel interfaces, in its simplest case), graphical enhancements of the system, the use of (visually appealing) avatars, the implementation of additional challenges and quests, or the provision of mini games (such as board, card, or racing games) for diversion and recreation. Finally, an important aspect of gamification is sweepstakes, lotteries, and “real” giveaways. However, as Alfie Kohn in his book “Punished by Rewards” (1999) argued, this type of motivators may provoke more (perhaps too much) concentration on game-related achievements while producing lesser quality. In his example he demonstrated that children draw more pictures, but in lesser quality, when paid for drawing pictures, more importantly, children did not like drawing pictures as much as before after they are stopped being paid. All in all, however, there is a clear trend towards the application of gamification. A focal question is whether gamification really works and if, to what extent.

In the context of the European RTD project Next-Tell, we developed a simple math rehearsal tool named Sonic Divider. The tool is design to practice the formal sequence of written division; the target age group of the tool is 6 to 8 years. Sonic Divider, in the first instance, is based on the domain of basic fractions of the nature 854/4; the divisor is always a single digit number and fractions do not have a remainder. Together with math teachers of primary schools in Graz, Austria, we analyzed the domain established in total 35 skills involved in the domain and established a competence structure. Children must drag ‘n drop the digits to their correct positions in the division. To gamify the tool, we implemented a scoring function. For each task certain points can be achieved that depend on the difficulty of the task. Depending on the general configuration several scoring options are available. In the simplest case the points are added to the student’s score when the task is correct. Another option is to deduct a certain amount of points from the maximum for a specific task for each incorrect action made during the division process. Also the time needed to process a task can be used to alter the points for a task. In addition, competition (within a class) is made possible by sharing and comparing high scores. In addition to the scoring, we used a smiley face to provide the children with direct feedback. In order to evaluate the principles and features of the tool we applied the tool in a primary school in Graz, Austria.

The results basically indicate that the children much appreciated using the Sonic Divider for practicing divisions. Informal discussions with the children revealed that using the tool was more attractive and motivating than regular work on paper. This is remarkable to a certain extent because in fact the tool is not a game but incorporates very basic gamification elements such as scoring and the feedback by the smileys. One reason for these findings might also be the fact that children were not evaluated or monitored by a human teacher but got some performance feedback directly by the system. All in all, boys did rate the Sonic Divider and the feedback features slightly better than the girls. One distinct difference was the rating of the “gamifying” scoring feature. The possibility to obtain high scores was much more liked by the boy – which confirms a gender cliché to a certain extend. We also observed that boys immediately started comparing the scores among them without being told to do so or without even mentioning the possibility to do so.

More results will be presented at the European Conference on Game Based Learning 2013. Check it out!

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