Gamification is the name given to the process of developing motivation and engagement by rewarding people with things that they want, and it often takes the form of points, acknowledgement of achievement, badges, prizes, and so on. Frequent flyer programmes or customer loyalty schemes are some of the earliest examples of gamification outside actual games. You probably know how they work: You complete certain milestones and you are rewarded with something you want, something that is meaningful and engaging to you. The rise of computer gaming culture has meant that more and more research has gone into finding out what features make these things so addictive for some people. And crucially for us, how we can take some of those features to make other things, such as learning, or school, more engaging and, hopefully, addictive. The trend of gamification is really about how to reward, motivate, and engage people in learning.


Elements of gamification have been with education ever since teachers started giving out grades or stickers. But these are a very crude form of gamification, and we’re seeing a trend towards more widespread use; a growing awareness of how effective and sophisticated gamification can be.  Access to mobile devices in the classroom also allows us to harness  the power of computers to do two things:

  • support us in the tracking and recording of progress
  • support us in the ways we enable learners to control more of the process themselves.

We’re getting more and more research on motivation in learning, and it’s really important for us as educators to know what leads to motivation. We talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — whether we’re motivated to learn by something inside us, or external to us. An over-reliance on extrinsic motivation ultimately limits learning, so, while stickers or badges might work in the short term, intrinsic motivation, or the desire to do something for yourself is the best way to ensure long-term learning.  The real power of gamification comes through using it to help learners move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. One of the things that drives intrinsic motivation is mastery, or the ability to do something well, and gamification can help learners build mastery through rewarding specific actions.

Game designers use things called reward schedules to keep people engaged, and these are linked to evolution. Through evolution we’ve developed a way to reward the solving of problems and it’s the same chemical associated with eating chocolate, which might explain something about our motivation. As humans evolved over tens of thousands of years, the solving of problems, and the completion of challenges proved to be a really useful trait: climb the tree — eat the fruit. Research shows that the kinds of rewards that are commonly associated with ramification — unlocking the next level, gathering points, getting the answer correct — also release dopamine. This is one of the things that makes computer games so addictive.

One of the three guiding principles of universal design for learning (UDL) is providing multiple means of engagement. There is a strong body of research that shows that people are motivated to learn for a variety of reasons. For some it’s the intrinsic motivation of the learning; for others it’s the desire to get the certificate to hang on the wall; for others it’ll be the social element of collaboration, or the ability to make a contribution to the greater good.

There are a number of features of gamification that we can use in learning:

  • Every action should be rewarded, particularly effort: If we’re interested in encouraging the journey as well as the finished product we should find ways to reward effort.
  • Feedback is vital: There’s research around the role that digital technology can play in increasing the rate of feedback for learners. Think of the old way of testing short answers or closed questions: Set a 10-question quiz, collect from the students, mark it and hand it back out the next day. There’s a minimum of a 24-hour delay on that feedback. Connect kids up to an adaptive learning platform that allows them to complete the task and receive frequent, specific feedback. Let the machine do that low-level stuff so you can focus on higher-level, qualitative feedback. Sites like QuizletKhan academyMathletics or Sumdog fit neatly into this category.
  • In the design of learning there should be multiple long and short-term goals: While the big goal might be to pass a particular assessment, gamification suggests we should be providing a range of short term goals to scaffold our learners towards those goals. The wider the variety linked to that overall goal, the more interesting it will be: collaborate with 10 different people, complete online tasks for 4 days in a row, get 100% in a short answer quiz, help out 4 other people, and so on. Maintaining engagement over the course of any sustained lesson or project can be difficult for many learners. Research shows the importance of incorporating periodic or persistent “reminders” of both the goal and its value in order to support students in sustaining effort and concentration in the face of distractions.
  • An awareness of the lifecycle a player goes through in a game: There’s another big opportunity for us as educators here. There are generally three stages:
    • the newbie — players new to the game who need some hand holding
    • the regular – after players get to know the game, it needs to become a habit for them. The next few levels need to provide satisfaction as per the player type.
    • the enthusiast – these players have pretty much mastered the game and need new twists and challenges to continue playing.
    Think about each of these roles within learning, and also, about how you can make use of and support each of these roles. How are you stretching the enthusiasts? How are you supporting the regulars? How can you make use of the challenges newbies face to tap into the expertise of the enthusiasts? Think peer tutoring, collaborative learning, or tuakana teina.

A good example of gamification for teachers is what we’ve begun to offer at CORE. He Tohu Oranga are a set of visual and digital representations of skill, knowledge, competencies, and achievement that evidence progression of learning. We know that, for some people, the learning, or the personal satisfaction of having participated in a professional learning programme, is enough, but there are those who are proud of what they have achieved and want to share the fact that they have been participants. So, when you complete a free online webinar, or attend a conference, or engage in a 20-week CORE Empower programme, you can choose to receive a badge that shows you’ve been part of that event. It’s a marker that you have some experience, and if you like, an invitation to help and support others in these areas.


As you are offering multiple means of motivation and engagement, think about aligning learning to the principles of gamification:

  • What’s your reward schedule?
  • How long should a learner go without being rewarded?
  • How can you allow learners to be challenged at a level that is right for them or to find what they are looking for in the material you’re exploring?
  • How do you reward every action, even if it is an unsuccessful attempt, because, after all, it’s the fostering of a growth mindset — one that can cope with and learn from failure — that we’re aiming for.

And, if it’s good enough for our learners, think also about teacher learning:

  • How do we allow teachers to find their own rewards in professional learning?
  • How do we reward every action?
  • How do we convene teams of newbies, regulars, and enthusiasts to make powerful learning.

In gaming, there is often a thing called an epic win — an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you almost don’t believe you can achieve it. If we can build on this trend of ramification, we might get to the educational version of an epic win: Learning that’s so engaging and addictive that we can’t stop learners from doing it.

Learn, participate, and share:

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