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Gamifying Your Instruction Is Easier Than You Think

Ms. Cooper teaches 5th grade. At times, she wonders if she is genuinely an effective teacher. Her students don’t seem excited about the curriculum or as motivated to learn as she would hope. Students give up easily when faced with challenging assignments and often rely on her guidance when completing classroom activities. However, informally she hears about the latest games her students are playing at home. They devote time and patience to overcoming challenges, using strategic thinking, collaborating with teammates, and investigating resources when learning new skills.

According to the Pew Research Center, the statistics are clear when it comes to kids, gaming, and educational technology. Forty-four percent of children ages 0-11 use a gaming device within their home (Perrin, 2020, July 28). When looking at teens, the numbers are staggering. Ninety percent of teens use gaming consoles, smartphones, and computers (Auxier, Anderson, Perrin, & Turner, 2018, September 17). Many educators like Ms. Cooper are looking to leverage students’ skills and interest in gaming for instructional purposes within the formal classroom. Many are exploring game-based learning to boost student engagement and motivate students while building critical thinking skills and meeting learning objectives.

What is gamification?

Gamification refers to when game design features are applied to non-game activities. The design elements are ones that gamers find motivational and engaging. Knapp (2012) provides an excellent definition capturing all of these features, “Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems” (p.10). Educational researchers have investigated numerous games to identify these essential design elements. Most agree that these elements include:

  • challenges or levels
  • opportunities to make choices
  • awarding of points
  • obtaining badges or prizes
  • competition and leaderboards
  • immediate feedback
  • storytelling and visual elements
  • objectives and goals
  • opportunities to try again.

It is when these elements are applied to traditional instruction that benefits students.

What are the benefits of gamification?

Incorporating game-based design into the formal classroom has proved to be very beneficial. Gamification design elements pair nicely with theories on learning (e.g., mastery learning), motivation (e.g., self-determination theory), and engagement.

Benefits of gamification include:

  • Increased Concentration – Csikszentmihalyi (2008) coined the term “flow,” where a person enters a state of increased concentration where time doesn’t seem to exist. Observing any serious gamer provides an example of “flow”; however, it is not limited to game-based activity.
  • Increased Engagement – Within a gamified context, students must interact and engage in new and unique ways. This might come through increased interaction with tools and resources or through a common interest or topic.
  • Solving Problems – Games include various levels and challenges. Incorporating gamified elements provides students with opportunities to hone their problem-solving skills in much of the same way.
  • Developing Critical Thinking – In order for gamers to achieve objectives and goals, they must develop critical thinking skills to plan ahead, think strategically, and overcome challenges.

One notable advantage is how the benefits of gamification remain even if they are later removed (Groening & Binnewies, 2021). Therefore, teachers like Ms. Cooper might find gamifying their instruction a more approachable instructional strategy to engage students.

How can you implement gamification?


Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Investigate the digital tools that are already in use in your classroom. Many of these tools have gamified elements already built-in. For example, Ms. Cooper is likely using a learning management system (LMS) with the capability to award students badges. Pairing 21st-century skills with learning activities provide students an opportunity to master content and earn a grade and recognize other more abstract skills (e.g., excellent communication or skills in leadership and collaboration).

Focus on the Instructional Strategies

Pair the gamification elements with instructional best practices and elevate those approaches. For example, the game design includes opportunities for students to make choices and try again. Ms. Cooper could build opportunities for students to direct their learning through choice. By incorporating mastery learning approaches, students can receive feedback, use that feedback, and try again. When students engage in multiple opportunities for feedback, they perceive this feedback as less critical over time. Unlike many instructional approaches, mastery learning focuses less on the time it takes for learning to occur and instead focuses on what is needed for learning to happen.

Start Small and Collaborate

Consider adding one new element to your instruction rather than a complete overhaul of your curriculum. Lean on your fellow educators and collaborate. Ms. Cooper might consider collaborating with her fifth-grade team to develop a leaderboard to facilitate friendly classroom competition. Sharing the workload not only takes the pressure off of Ms. Cooper, but allows all of the students in the fifth grade an opportunity to experience a gamified classroom. Additionally, consider looking at your current curriculum and repackage one activity to include gamified elements. It might be as simple as changing the language to incorporate game-based vocabulary (e.g., experience points instead of grades) or incorporating storytelling to “set the stage” for a lesson.

Final Thoughts


Finally, consider this quote, “Games give experiences meaning, they provide a set of boundaries within a ‘safe’ environment to explore, think, and ‘try new things out.’ Games provide motivation to succeed and reduce the sting of failure” (Knapp, 2012, p. xxi). Much of what we do as teachers can already be situated within a gamified context. Many of the game design elements are already in a teacher’s wheelhouse and tied to research-based best practices.


Auxier, B., Anderson, M., Perrin, A., & Turner, E. (2018, September 17). Children’s Engagement with Digital Devices, Screen Time. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/07/28/childrens-engagement-with-digital-devices-screen-time/

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Groening, C., & Binnewies, C. (2021). The More, the Merrier?-How Adding and Removing Game Design Elements Impact Motivation and Performance in a Gamification Environment. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 1-21.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. John Wiley & Sons.

Perrin, A. (2020, July 28). 5 Facts About Americans and Video Games. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/17/5-facts-about-americans-and-video-games/