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Assessing the Potential of Gamification in Higher Education

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that profiled “Ball State Achievements,” a mobile application by the university that incentivizes participation among low-income students in campus activities, such as attending an organization’s event or going to the campus gym, by rewarding points to students (which can later be redeemed for campus currency), like you would to a player in a game. The underlying idea is that students who participate in activities outside the classroom are more likely to achieve success in the classroom, and in order to promote these actions, Ball State has decided to “[gamify] their college experience.”

Ball State is not alone. In order to recognize students for meeting particular class objectives, for earning achievements that are typically not found on transcripts, or for acquiring a certain set of skills, Purdue University in 2012 developed two applications: Passport and Passport Profile. Passport enables professors to develop their own badges and set the requirements needed to earn that badge while Passport Profile allows students to showcase the badges they’ve earned.

The use of gamification in higher education is on the rise. But the fact is that the arguments for its use are largely conjectural at this point. Proponents point to statistics that seem to indicate its efficacy. For example, low-income students that used Ball State Achievements last year earned higher GPAs than those that did not. It is important to take these results with a grain of salt, however: students who used the application could be more motivated than those who did not, or have some other unobserved difference that explains the difference in GPA.

In another evaluation, two professors at Delft University of Technology tested the use of gamification in their own courses. Using data from four different classes (three sessions of an undergraduate course and one session of a master’s course), totaling more than 450 students, the professors found that the use of gamification was positively correlated with the percentage of students that passed, as well as the level of participation in activities and assignments. It is not possible to draw a causal inference from this study, however. The comparison class, which did not use gamification, differed from the gamification courses in other ways. In addition, the master’s course was being given for the first time, so there was no true comparison group for that section.

Still, the conceptual arguments for gamification are appealing, and suggest that more rigorous study would be worthwhile. Shantanu Sinha, president of Khan Academy, has argued that end-of-semester grades are a poor motivating factor for students. Students who receive bad grades develop a mindset that effort isn’t rewarded, while exceptional students are motivated to do only the minimum amount of work that will earn a good grade. Games are better, he argues, because they provide immediate and continuous feedback and reward progress at all levels of achievement. Games enable students to surpass personal boundaries rather than simply meet the thresholds established by their teachers.

There are conceptual reasons for caution about gamification, as well. As Sinha points out, a potential danger of gamification is that the intrinsic value of learning can be replaced by a dependency on extrinsic rewards. We should not “trick” students into learning by hiding it in games. Students should want to learn.

Moreover, poorly designed games may stifle the creativity they are trying to support. As Jeff Watson, an associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, argues, “gamification” is actually the antithesis of a game. Games are about finding creative solutions to surprising problems. Gamification, on the other hand, says “here are X number of things that you can be rewarded for doing. Now do them. Your activity will be monitored, and you will be credentialed accordingly.” The result may be students who care about earning badges in a sequential order rather than engaging in authentic and creative problem-solving.

The concept of gamification is growing in popularity and its proponents put forth appealing arguments. As such, it is important to understand its impact on a range of student outcomes. Hopefully, additional studies—including plans to evaluate Purdue’s Passport—can help identify the effects and best uses of gamification in higher education contexts.

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