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The role of gamification in Teaching (ALT East of England Meetup)

Matt East

Last month, I attended the ALT East of England Meetup at the lovely UEA campus. The theme of this event was all around gamification in teaching, with a number of examples and use cases from Anglia Ruskin, UEA, and LAL Language. What really struck me at this event was the variety of examples that were shown; everything from quizzes with digital badges, to using Oculus Rifts for training, team-based 360 simulation approaches for Digital Marketing students, to using an escape room model for library-based training.

Gamifying learning obviously isn’t a new subject, this has been done for years in various guises. It’s pretty obvious really; make something more fun and interactive, to motivate and incentivise your students. I’ve been a fan of gamification for many years as I’ve seen first hand the transformation you can see on modules who implement this approach, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Gamifying can require a considerable amount of planning and administration as well as input from others across the university (other academics, learning technologists and librarians), but I’m not over-egging it when I say it can be truly transformative to your practice, and to students learning. What I really liked about this day was the examples seemed to show how colleagues adopting this approach were able to do so relatively independently.

The day started off with three examples from UEA, showing their approach to quizzes in Blackboard, with digital badges being used as incentives. Unlike many who are involved with digital badge based activity, these examples were totally homemade and facilitated by the lecturers, making their own and building into the Blackboard Achievements tool. The primary aim here was to better gauge how students were progressing through the subject matter, giving the academic a better interpretation of knowledge and understanding.

The examples shown from UEA spanned 3 courses to varying levels of implementation, from Medicine, History and Biology. Each course approached this task in a similar way; using the quiz tool in Blackboard as the primary delivery mechanism, with short, regular quizzes throughout the modules and courses. Perhaps one of the nicest elements of this was the physical artefact were built into the process beyond just digital badges. In this case, by completing (and passing) all the quizzes in the Biology module, students were able to win a real badge, that many went for! Out of a cohort of 247 students, around 70% of the cohort completed the quizzes badges related to, whilst 30% of the students completed the lot! For anyone trying to build formative assessment tasks into their weekly learning activity, you’ll know this can often result in a significant number simply not engaging, making this quite an impressive statistic to include.

From the UEA examples, a number of key points arose for me. These are observations I’ve made throughout my own practice around gamification of courses in the past, but I was interested to observe things like competitiveness on different courses where I wouldn’t have expected this to be a key factor observed towards the success of the project.

  1. The argument that students only engage with summative assessment is assumed, but often false (in fact, the academic leading one project fed back that making this summative would have had a detrimental impact from his perspective)
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of competitiveness with your cohort. Leaderboards can actually encourage as well as detract some.
  3. This type of activity is definitely resource intensive, but it can really offset the workload for academics on modules by removing requests for more information from the cohort
  4. This type of activity driven through self-directed learning can provide a huge amount of insight into the cohort’s understanding of the subject matter, particularly for those who are normally quiet in class and seldom speak up

I particularly enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of the academics involved in this. You could really see they got a lot out of this project as well, and incorporated a number of their own interests into their modules through the form of easter eggs (typically in games, this is either an inside joke, or a hidden element to the game that developers have added for an additional bit of fun).

Up next, some examples from Anglia Ruskin University which included work from the library and business school. I’ve started to see a few examples of ’escape room’ type activity being built into academic activity, both from a design (getting students to design escape rooms for learning)  and delivery (doing the actual escape room as a learning task) perspectives, but nothing from the library previously. The work from ARU really got me thinking about how valuable this approach could be to things like inductions to the library, especially if you think about the opportunities for upskilling students on the workings of the library and information skills. I feel there could be some great opportunities for blending the physical and virtual spaces here as well, making this a more scalable project. To find out more information about the work from ARU Library, contact Kari Morley and Christina Harbour.

Perhaps the most valuable session for me from the day was from Cheryl Greyson, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Anglia Ruskin University. Her session titled ‘Real-life Simulations for Game-Based Learning & Employability Skills’ aimed to give students a real-life experience of what it’s like to work in a digital marketing agency, reacting to real-life scenarios. The activity, based around being a digital marketer for a national supermarket spans over four weeks, as the students battle crises, a cast of difficult and demanding colleagues, and internal and external pressures as they get the job done in real time, focussing on employability skills throughout the project. This session showed very clearly the level of impact this had on the module delivery, the engagement of the cohort, and importantly, the students understanding throughout the module. This type of practical experience is tough to deliver, takes loads of planning and logistics, but the payoff can be significant, as Cheryl demonstrated. Looking back at my own studies on a Business Masters, this type of simulation-based activity would have been hugely valuable, particularly when attempting to ascertain how to put theory into practice,  and having been involved in the setup of similar projects on different courses, would love to see this method being adopted in many more subjects and disciplines, particularly for developing some of the softer skills we need our students to learn and enhance throughout their studies.

Thanks again to ALT for putting on another fantastic event. This gave me a number of ideas about gamifying modules on other courses I’m now involved with through the work on Talis Elevate. If you’d like to find out anything else about Game Based learning or gamification, it’s worth taking a look at Niel Nilman’s book “The Gamification of Higher Education: Developing a Game-Based Business Strategy in a Disrupted Marketplace.” Alternatively, for a shorter read, here from practitioner Steve Isaccs in this medium post on his experience of gamifying his course.

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