Dr. Aaron Langille, master lecturer in the department of Mathematics & Computer Science at Laurentian University, was in a predicament. How do you motivate a class of 200 first-year students in a computer programming course at 8:00 a.m. in the morning with 2/3 of the students coming from various other programs?
Dr. Langille finds techniques like humour and pop culture references helpful for engaging students during in-class lectures, but other tools such as group discussions and flipped classrooms are difficult with such a large class size. He found the biggest obstacle was motivating students to complete homework assignments, study for tests and maximizing their efforts in projects.
As an instructor, Dr. Langille was looking for something different to better engage and motivate these students to help them succeed and found inspiration from the gaming world.
Based on video games and gamified apps such as Fitbit, where recognition for completing tasks and goals is used to motivate participants, Dr. Langille used a custom website with gamification elements, designed by a Laurentian computer science student, for use in this first-year computer program design course.
The customized website contained badges based on several categories: assignments, labs, tests, social interactions and miscellaneous. Badges are tied to tasks designed to promote positive academic and social habits and are awarded by the course instructor or teaching assistant (TA). Each badge has a name, a description of the task, a colour and a point value. Colours are used to group badges into categories students could easily identify and group them by category, for example, purple is for assignments. The badges first appear to be faded, but once a student has received the badge, the colour brightens thereby allowing the student to see which ones have been achieved.
The website includes a scoreboard to promote friendly competition between students. Badges are assigned points based on the difficulty of the task and are used to determine rankings on the scoreboard. To protect students’ privacy, they can use an alias or opt out of the scoreboard entirely.
In the gaming world, elements of surprise, such as unexpected rewards and spontaneous challenges, keep players engaged. This is why Dr. Langille included 3 or 4 badges marked with ???? known as “mystery” badges. The description and title are withheld from a student until they complete the task, usually unintentionally or by hearing about it from another student. For example, there is a “Lend a Hand” badge where students are awarded the badge and associated points for helping other students in the lab component of the course.
Benefits and Outcomes
The benefits of gamification in higher education are numerous. Increased motivation, consistent class attendance and participation, and overall better performance are just a few. When students feel engaged in learning, they perform better in class, on exams, and in learning the material overall.
To gauge student interest and reaction to the badges system, a survey was conducted and the student response was overwhelmingly positive. More than 75% of students surveyed said they enjoyed the system and felt it motivated them to work harder on assignments and labs, and study harder for tests. Many students expressed they would like to see similar badging systems in other courses.
Challenges and Enhancements
The process with gamification is trial and error and Dr. Langille has an open conversation with his students about what works and what doesn’t. The first time he added badges to his course, he provided a 5% bonus mark to those who participated. Ultimately, he eliminated this aspect because he didn’t want students to feel pressure to participate, adding an unwanted element of stress.
The scoreboard was a contentious item where competition can be demotivating for some students, especially those low on the scoreboard. Some students don't want their scores shown at all (as mentioned previously, they can opt out or use an alias).
Student feedback also revealed the mystery badges were not a big hit. Students didn’t like the element of surprise; they wanted to fully see the tasks laid out and what was expected of them. Therefore, the mystery badges were significantly reduced from the first year to the following years.
Dr. Langille also noticed the novelty of the badges used diminished over time when used with a subset of the same students in a follow-up course. He found the motivational properties of the badges and achievements lost much of its effect.
Gamification can work for any subject and at any level. Badging is a basic level of gamification. More involved levels of gamification that can be used include quest-based learning, levelling up and even avatar role playing.
Gamification in education works for everyone – adult students, non-traditional learners, and first year students alike. Today’s student population is more diverse and requires different forms of engagement to help them succeed. Adding gaming elements is an interesting way to try to engage and motivate more students.
For Further Information
Dr. Aaron Langille
Department of Mathematics & Computer Science
Science, Engineering and Architecture
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada