‘Gamer’ or not, all students can benefit from gamified learning

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Over the course of two generations, video games have evolved from basic tests of response times and fine motor skills to complex endeavors that drive hundreds of thousands of passionate fans online to hotly debate strategy and tactics.

Of course, games can also be a distraction, as every educator in America can tell you after the past few years of Fortnite. But for many young people today, their best opportunities for learning teamwork, deep thinking and the virtues of committed practice come in these online games. It’s a model we would do well to adopt — not because it’s trendy or cool, but because it works.

Games have been part of K-12 education for a long time, from flashcard races to The Oregon Trail. But today there are opportunities to use gamified learning to help students learn a much broader range of skills — like creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management — that employers now say are some of the most sought after in new employees.

Games — no matter what subjects they explore or the medium in which they’re presented — all have some sort of goal that players must work toward if they want to win. They all have challenges that pop up along the way. To overcome them, players have to respond to change (demonstrate adaptability), think of new approaches (demonstrate creativity) and work with their teammates (use persuasion and collaboration) to figure out which new tactic is best.

Skills aside, gaming is also a great way to ensure students retain information. Studies have shown that “situational and individual interest promote attention, recall, task persistence, and effort,” with situational interest being interest that stems from “a particular moment.”

In other words, topics that students don’t find especially interesting can be presented in games, contributing to their mastery of the material. For example, a student may not be thrilled to learn about “if statements” in computer programming — code that commands “if X happens, make Y happen.” But if students are challenged to reach a goal using if statements in a gamified environment, like having a character choose their next action based on a condition, it can capture their attention and they can begin learning how to use if statements without even realizing it.

The benefits of gamified learning go well beyond a lesson-by-lesson basis. When it’s more broadly applied, by treating the entire class as if it’s one giant game and each unit a smaller game within it, student engagement and learning can significantly increase. 

I saw this in my Intro to Computer Science in JavaScript class, where there are several lessons in which students can complete exercises and earn badges. These badges act as goals for the students to reach, and while they are striving to reach them, they are learning about computer programming!

Offering students some sort of badge or reward for completing a certain lesson or unit is a simple way for educators to bring gamified learning into their classrooms. Such a small, short-term reward is powerful. It recognizes students’ achievements, and it also gives them motivation to reach the next educational milestone, and eventually the long-term goal of class completion.

I give gamification a lot of credit for guiding me toward my own career in computer science. Long nights playing Halo 3 and tinkering with the game’s map and game editor eventually blossomed into an interest in the underlying code.

The benefits of gamified learning are undeniable, and benefits from building on an existing student interest in gaming. Our eSports team at the Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is a great example of tapping into this great student interest. The team is already taking off and preparing for the spring season.

But at the end of the day, students don’t have to be “gamers” in the traditional sense of the word. Gamified learning can have a positive impact on all students, and as teachers and instructors, our job will get a whole lot more interesting, fun and impressive when we act on this realization.

Benjamin Leskovansky is an instructor on the Information Technology pathway at the Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, powered by K12, Inc., and head coach of the school’s eSports team.

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