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Gamified Learning: Strategy for Success

February 27, 2024


Remote desktop sharing, sticky notes, Chegg (an instant study help website), and even flying drones have all become part of student cheating hacks. A study by Thomas Lancaster from Imperial College London found a 196% increase in cheating using Chegg from April to August 2020, just as schools across the globe switched to online classes. Texas A&M and Boston University also had 800 cases of academic fraud involving Chegg, when students answered complex exam questions in under a minute. 

Are Students Giving Up on Learning?

It would be unfair to say that all students are giving up on learning. While some students who admitted to using platforms like ChatGPT and Chegg have said they are “simply trying to get by,” others say the education system is not supporting them enough despite high college tuition.

There seems to be a universal lack of motivation from all sides. Teachers are disappointed in students, and students feel like teachers have given up. An increased automated proctoring options to oversee students’ browsers remotely is not helping rebuild that connection between students and educators.

However, students complaining about the tedious ways of traditional teaching methods is nothing new. A study by Lee and Hammer from 2011 shows teachers have been facing difficulties in motivating students for over a decade. Since we live in an increasingly expanding digital era, educators worldwide should also get on the fast train and use innovative digital tools and strategies to enhance learning outcomes. That is where gamified learning takes center stage, but the question is – how effective is it as an educational tool?

What is Gamification?

Gamification is using game elements in non-game environments (study by Detering, Dixon Khalid, and Nacke, 2011). In an educational setting, gamification offers several advantages over traditional learning methods, such as:

  • Boosting learner motivation,
  • Enhancing knowledge retention,
  • Facilitating better engagement through social features like badges, points, or leaderboards.

However, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of gamification in learning. Some experts believe it is a powerful tool to engage students. Those who apply games to learn claim it helps them improve their ability to retain information. However, others argue that they have only seen minimal benefits and that it is not a perfect strategy for success. So, let’s dig into the human brain and find the cause for this divide by explaining the neuroscience behind gamified learning.

The Science Behind Gamified Learning

The hippocampus, an area in the lower part of your brain, is the main culprit in your ability to recall knowledge. The stronger the neurons fire in the hippocampus, the stronger the neural links between the part where information is stored and the ability to retain and recall that information (Foerde 2011).

What helps the brain create stronger neural links are positive triggers, such as happy emotions and experiences. Educators have turned to gamification to boost students’ learning capacities. Therefore, games have been proven to impact the brain’s hippocampus significantly. Games are fun and have a reversible degree of difficulty, meaning players can fail as often as needed until they succeed.  

Moreover, repetition, especially gamified repetition, helps improve memory by allowing the learner to engage in the lesson. And “repetition is the mother of all learning,” as the ancient Athenian proverb says.

Neuroscience of Gaming in Action

BBC Horizon has tested the theory with a group of older test subjects. The subjects played a popular racing game 15 hours a day for five weeks. At the end of that period, they scored a 30% increase in their attention span and memory recollection.

As mentioned above, positive emotions and experiences help activate the hippocampus, so it is no wonder dopamine plays such a big role in our learning capacity. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of happiness and satisfaction, often the consequence of engaging in pleasurable activities, just like when we play games. 

Games can have varying difficulty levels, which means they are not all darts and racing games.   Instead, learning through neuroeducation can be a rather challenging endeavor, but one that will hit you with dopamine each time you complete one level. Did we say level? We meant a gamified goal.

Key Game Elements That Encourage Learning

Despite the pushback, gamification has found numerous applications in learning, allowing educators to innovate their methods, skills, and the material itself. Before delving into specific examples, it’s essential to understand the key game elements to consider in educational settings:

  • Narrative
  • Immediate feedback
  • Enjoyable experiences
  • “Scaffolded learning” featuring progressively challenging tasks
  • Progress indicators like points, badges, and leaderboards
  • Social interaction
  • Player autonomy

One important note to remember is that dopamine isn’t released only when we play. Dopamine serves several crucial functions in the brain, including voluntary movement, sleep and dreaming regulation, mood management, attention, working memory, motivation, punishment, reward processing, easier knowledge adoption, and more.

As you can see, when it comes to games, dopamine only becomes our internal reward system when we achieve a milestone. Therefore, it is important to have elements like goals and rewards that trigger dopamine release. Gamification breaks down complex information into smaller and more manageable pieces. The more milestones you pass, the more you are engaged in the lesson and motivated to continue absorbing knowledge. Here are some proven gamification strategies that can improve the learning experience.

Effective Gamification Strategies:

  1. Eye-catching Visuals: 

Use visually appealing designs and graphics to create an enjoyable learning environment. People who are visual learners will benefit greatly from this method, and educators will notice enhanced engagement. Whenever you can make the lesson more appealing, create some simple and even funny graphics to promote the retention of information.

  1. A Reason to Compete: 

People who thrive in environments with healthy competition will perform better when placed against peers. Use scoreboards to visually show the competitors’ progress, along with a reward system that fosters motivation and engagement. This approach is effective for sales representatives and high-performing employees.

  1. An Engaging Storyline:

Effective storytelling can captivate learners who base their recollection skills on their emotions. However, since most people are emotional creatures, an engaging narrative will maintain almost anyone’s attention in immersive learning modules. Gamification through storytelling is extremely versatile, though it requires greater preparation and inspiration from the educator. Including avatars or characters to represent employees can add fun to gamification for businesses.   

  1. Progressive Challenges:

A teaching strategy based on challenges encourages learners to apply their knowledge and skills, rewarding them by releasing dopamine. Each challenge concurrently prepares students for more difficult tasks as they progress through the course. By incrementally intensifying the complexity of the challenges, learners are never bored, and their capacity to memorize and retain knowledge increases. Overall, challenges guarantee dopamine bursts never cease by fostering a sense of achievement throughout the learning experience.

  1. Points for Accountability:

Assigning points for completing various tasks is a powerful motivator. Individuals who see their progress or lack thereof are more likely to develop internal motivation to get better test results. Additionally, a fun-driven points system accurately measures the students’ or employees’ dedication and progress throughout the learning experience. The point-based system can incentivize hard work by fostering accountability.

  1. Badge-Based Recognition:

Badges acknowledge and reward learners for their efforts and achievements, similar to the points system. The difference is that badges also visually recognize accomplishment but don’t track precise progress. They are better when used as milestones, such as quarterly tests and quizzes. Gamification rewards, such as badges, trigger serotonin release and improve the learner’s mood while motivating them to strive for success.

Work Skill Acquisition and Stress Reduction via Gameplay

While games might not work for some, we can see through some of the studies mentioned in this article that, for many people, games alleviate stress by lowering cortisol levels. There is no reason to discredit the mechanisms of gamified learning as long as they help some people absorb knowledge. We are not all cut from the same fabric, so people whose brains respond better to gamification should be able to have that tool at their disposal.

While some would argue that gamification would just deepen the problem of students cheating on tests and employees avoiding work, research shows both groups and their mentors are more motivated if they know they will have a little fun in class or the office. Texas A&M University’s study has confirmed that mood management through gameplay alleviates depression and hostility. Two feelings widely spread in colleges and corporate America.

Implementing gamification into everyday learning practices of these demographics can mitigate cognitive overload by breaking down complex information into manageable chunks. Furthermore, it strengthens essential work skills by practicing them in gameplay experiences. All in all, gamified learning leverages key neuroscience principles to create engagement and facilitate knowledge retention. Embracing gamification offers organizations a potent strategy for success by enhancing workplace learning and performance.