I have been reading up on how to shift more of my teaching resources on to the Learning Management System, to make it easier to access from other locations even though I mostly teach in a classroom. It is a way to learn more about online course presentation.

I have read that gamification using even such simple techniques as points, levels, badges and leaderboards... Wow, trying to think of an example... It is right in front of my face... Is a very effective way to get people to use the content and stay in the course. The sources I read say that it is most effective for people over age 45, including those over 65. That seems to surprise people.

My question, should you choose to accept it, is: how effective is this for techniques you have used? Apparently gamification brings out the competitive nature of the 60% of people with that tendency, while not sufficiently putting off the other 40%. Personally, I don't think gamification would do anything for me, as I have not been a fan of computer games, sports, board games, competition or anything else that leads me to work against others and egoically for myself. Can this idea really succeed with people inclined to study computer topics?

  • $\begingroup$ Is the question how to do it or is it whether it is a good idea to do it? $\endgroup$ – Buffy Oct 3 '18 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Buffy well, I think we can safely assume that if it is a bad idea, I would not want to do it, since I am not egoically motivated. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 3 '18 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ I was surprised to read that about 30% of adults over age 25 play video games every day. I can't remember the last time I even saw a video game. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 3 '18 at 0:38

It can certainly be effective. Even for adults who aren't particularly game-motivated, what you are setting up is a system that (a) rewards good learning behaviors, and perhaps more importantly, (b) gives a steady, visible reminder of what those behaviors are. You've taken away one of the hidden mental taxes of learning by helping them to manage their own time.

I don't imagine that most adults are really driven to win the game in the way that children are. Rather, they appreciate that it helps them organize their activities around the course, and the small dopamine "hit" that they get from the points feel genuinely earned, so there is no guilt in just enjoying the small pleasure.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, this is a good way to understand it, thank you. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 4 '18 at 1:30

Let's try a rundown of some points in your question, relating them, where possible, to the system that hosts your question. (You already hinted at that system anyway, and you seem somewhat familiar with it.) Having about zero knowledge of the Learning Management System, I'll refrain from trying to connect any concepts to that specific system.

Can this idea really succeed with people inclined to study computer topics?

I'm going to give that part a resounding "yes" based on the statistics, including growth, of Stack Overflow. The remainder of the Stack Exchange Network helps to support that conclusion, yet it is hardly needed. In a little over 10 years it has been joined by 9.5 million users, generated 26 million answers to 17 million questions (growing by nearly 7,000 questions per day). (Excluding the non-English SO sites from the data). The knowledge stored there covers so many programming topics, that I find it incredible that there are still thousands of questions per day that are not already answered there. I have to presume that most of the users on SO, more than most of the other SE sites*, are inclined to study computer topics and, as I understand the system, the gamification is one key element of retaining users and generating answers.

As you report from your research, the gamification is attractive to a large percentage of people, yet is not off-putting to the rest of the people. Such would seem to suggest that while it may lack a hook for some people, it does not produce significant negative effects either. In addition, while not true for all educational institutions, the vast majority of schools have already laid the ground work for gamification of their courses. Is not the published GPA of students "gamification"?

How effective is this for techniques you have used?

Other than the normal grade, and GPA-type rankings I've only had the opportunity to apply gamification to one classroom environment. This was for adult GED students who were also involved in a program for vocational preparedness. The vocational material was, by my own evaluation and reports from the students, dry, boring, dull, and unengaging. This despite it being an CBE built on a, supposedly, "active learning" system. As it was already computerized and the database files were essentially flat files (Windows 98 materials used in 2012!) I hacked into the files and built a system to rank the students on various metrics for a set of "ladders" as I called them, though they were essentially leader-boards anyway. There were no rewards or privileges offered for reaching goals or levels in the system, and no badges, or other recognition outside of the standings on the various ladders. While the students were all male, their ages ranged from 19 to 60+, covered a variety of ethnic groups, and varying degrees of English proficiency (it was a GED program, but not an ESL program).

The results were positive on all fronts. There were some of the men who were uninterested in the ladder system, including some that were well ranked nonetheless, yet those same men still managed to become more engaged in the related components. Those who were in the vocational section also showed a significant uptick in their GED material retention. (Possibly due to a large part of the GED material forming the foundation for understanding and completing the vocational materials.) There was also an increase of about 40% in the GED students who wanted to become involved in the vocational components. We ended up having to create a time-slot system to accommodate the interested students on the dozen available computers, which had not been a problem prior to the ladder system. Two other significant points: 1) none of the pre-ladder system participants dropped out because of the new ranking system, and 2) a few men postponed taking their GED tests until after they had completed the vocational section (passing the GED would be graduation from the class and loss of access to the vocational section as well).

Personal experience from the receiving end. I am not in the "competitive" camp, and usually try to avoid "ranking" myself against others. (I don't even like viewing team sports, never mind playing them.) I know that the SE model is heavily gamified, and I even think it has been done well. My reputation on this site, after checking, is the highest I have on any site. I don't know when I last visited the reputation tab in my profile, but it's been quite a while in any case since there's been a lot of points earned since then.


Nevertheless, I have participated in this site and earned reputation points (as have you), and I've also learned I have access to new tools to help the site in its growth. I have also participated in several other sites on the network, even answering a question of two that other users don't seem to understand. (I presume that if they'd understood the question they could have given answers; faster and better than mine as well.) My primary purpose for using these sites is my own increase in knowledge (practical and theoretical), and I believe in sharing my wealth (information) with others that need it. This platform facilitates both objectives very well, and I can basically ignore the game elements as irrelevant to my experience.

I think that, done right, you can create and implement a system of gamification for your courses, both online and in the classroom, that will be successful with the many, inoffensive to the few, and beneficial to the whole.

* Computer Science, Theoretical Computer Science, and Software Engineering are among the obvious exceptions to that qualification.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the real life example, that helps a lot. The statistics for this CSE site suggest that gamification is not particularly helpful at boosting engagement. With 5800 members, only 30 are above 1000 points, and a large number are at 101, which suggests that they came here from other sites only to comment. I bet that the curve for SO looks pretty similar, with the vast majority of the millions of users asking only one Question and then moving on when they got what they needed. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 4 '18 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ Those who joined the site and did nothing, or have asked a question and left with their answer can be ignored, relative to your question. They would be the same as students from other departments stopping by your office to ask a question. (How do I unlock my laptop?) As I understand the question, the gamification would be for increasing the engagement of students already interested in taking your course. Poking around, at random, in the low rep (<300) users for this site, most of whom seem to not be teachers, it seem about 25% visited within a month. [Wish I knew SEDE for better stats. :( ] $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Oct 4 '18 at 2:44

I have tried using two platforms designed for gamification: Classcraft and Coursemology. Classcraft is more general, and applicable to a younger audience (middle school) while Coursemology looks more like a traditional LMS. Coursemology also is designed to be used for CS courses as assignments and "missions" can include programming tasks with public/private unit tests applied. There is grading within the LMS as well as points. The points are what is public - although it can be set so the point totals only are public, not student names themselves (ie students know their comparative rank.)

I used Coursemology in 4 sections of a first year highschool CS course using Python. Each section was generally around 25 students. Here were my observations:

  • At first, students jokingly almost mocked the ladder. Like they were pretending not to care. But they kept talking about it. Then they stopped talking about it - and they started seeking out the extra tasks that would give them more points

  • It did not motivate the laggards. Once a student fell a but behind, it was difficult to motivate them. Now, this is true in any classroom. If a student falls behind early, it may be challenging to convince them that they can still succeed. It may be more difficult to convince that same student if they see that they are 30k points behind.

  • It's difficult to know how the average student improved as a result. I have no data on grades, or comparison in say exam results. One of the things that was different was that I was using more, small challenges using the autograder. Students seemed to do better, but they were getting some feedback more regularly. So the gamification seemed to help a bit, but if you are using autograded small challenges in addition to larger assignments, then maybe there is little benefit to be had in adding gamification. That said, in my opinion, gamifying a course can cause an instructor to rethink how their course works in other ways. Using more, smaller challenges leading to sporadic larger challenges (think level bosses), and requiring points to reach new levels to get new content can create individualized paths.

All that said, I did a very poor job totally resigning the course completely to leverage the gamification elements. I was learning the LMS, making up challenges, and guessing at point value as I went along. That's not a recipe for a sensational implementation.

Finally, don't gamify a course unless you want students to game it. That's not a big concern, since students already game courses. They look for loopholes to gain maximum marks with minimal effort. But be prepared for students looking to simply get points. I would like to go back to gamification, but only under a couple stipulations. The LMS for tracking points makes it easy to still use pair programming challenges. Also easy to add points for things like collaboration skills, communication, and even simple things like demonstrating a design stage before implementation. **In general, I think the real value is in gamification the process of being a student, not simply the products. ** Perhaps that's easily done by adding more badges.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very well thought out answer, thanks. It sounds like it might raise motivation in general, but lagging students would have even more 'evidence' that the cause is lost? You also noted my point that I don't want people to find ways to game the system. Learning is not a game. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 20 '18 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ Students already do their best to game the education system. In a gamification system, maybe it's more.in the open $\endgroup$ – TooManyCooks Oct 24 '18 at 3:37

I'm older than your targeted demographic, I think, and I've never been a gamer. I find it boring, actually. But I find learning exciting. But there are some things you should keep in mind before trying this.

The most important thing is that every student is different. They all have different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, interests. That is probably even more true for adults with a longer span of personal history.

For a technique like gamification to work with a group of students, I think that they would need to be self-selected, going in to the course knowing what was going on. I don't know of any research on this with older students, but doubt that people in their 50's and 60's are terribly driven by racking up points. Some are, I assume, and if you can find a group of those, then a course might work. But I doubt that a general sort of population would take to such an approach. "Are we being treated like adults or like children?"

Another issue that I would personally worry about is whether making too much of a game of it would actually detract from doing the work of reinforcing the knowledge through practice. Note that I have, in fact, used a simple game like Jeopardy with adult students, but only as a break from the more disciplined (read tedious) stuff. It worked for that, but I wouldn't have expected it to do more than jazz them up a bit when that was needed.

My strong belief is that for such students, building things that have some meaning to them would be a much better strategy. Especially building some simple application incrementally so that they get feedback (endorphin hits) frequently. But those hits are more of an intellectual hit than just some meaningless "levels" or points. For this reason I prefer teaching agile software development along with programming in early courses, so that the immediate tasks are small and there are a lot of small successes.

Likewise, since a given group of adults is probably pretty diverse, some will struggle more than others. For that reason, I'd prefer to rely heavily on group work, rather than individual. If you aren't in a strict academic environment and have no concerns about "cheating" then it can be a big win. Again, I do have experience with this teaching adults.

The key lesson, of course, is that instead of making the learning system competitive, you should IMO, make it cooperative.

Some research on the idea might be interesting, especially on the difference in learning between, for example, men and women. It might be hard to justify it to an IRB, perhaps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, I read that gamification results were equal for men and women, so that is no issue. As for endorphin hits, you just put my entire learning experience with programming in to perspective! I was doing incremental development and testing, back in college. I never thought of it as mildly addictive before -- yet another thing that was right in front of my face. My goal is just to figure out what the heck online course design really is, and I am not coming up with much except that it takes everything we have always done and makes it visible via a computer screen. Not such a big revolution. $\endgroup$ – Scott Rowe Oct 3 '18 at 0:29

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