Iterating designs in classroom gamification: a case study

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The nice thing about using gamification in a classroom setting is that you have a comparatively short feedback loop. Most concepts you want to try take a lesson or so to execute and evaluate, or, if you gamify a chapter, a couple of weeks at most. At the same time, the drawback about using gamification in a classroom is that it is difficult to prototype and iterate.

You take an idea and prepare the materials, and off you go into the classroom. If it works: great! If it doesn’t work: the same subject comes back around the same time next year. Hope you still remember what went wrong and what went right when you revisit your materials ;)

But then again, it isn’t all that bad. Usually, you can generalize knowledge gained from a lesson design for one subject, and apply it to the next design. In line with this, in this article I will take a certain design and look at the effect on the students. From this I will distill the lessons learned and show how they affected the next iterations. 

The initial design: an exercise in autonomy
This design was for a chapter on magnetism, given for a group of vwo 5 students (about 16 years old). It was designed to be the backbone of the chapter, to which I would then add the individual lessons. The main idea was to offer students a structured choice in how to engage with the subject matter, and recognize them for it. This way, the students could approach the topic on their level and work on it using their particular strengths.

The design consisted of two elements, which I handed out at the beginning of the chapter:
1. The skilltree
2. The list of quests

The skilltree is something I have worked with for a long time, and the ideas behind it are described in this article (available in Dutch). So here, I mainly want to focus on the list of quests. There were fourteen quests in total, each belonging to a different specialty: curator, scientist, engineer, educator or expert. Students could choose which and how many of these quests they wanted to do, and received Quest Points (QP) for completing them. Completing tasks really well also yielded specialty points, such as Engineer Points. I kept track of these points and regularly updated the leaderboard. At the end of the chapter, the students with the most QP and the students with the most specialty points in their specialty received small prizes.

Results and lessons learned
This was for me a specific experiment in giving the students a large amount of freedom, combined with incentives for effort. These were my findings: 1. For a fair number of students this worked really well. They both appreciated the chance to do things their way, and they were motivated by the competition and the recognition for effort. Some did up to six quests in addition to the regular work.
2. A sizeable group of students decided that the ideal amount of quests to do was none at all. While this wasn’t exactly unforeseen, this group was too large to leave the rules unchanged in a further iteration.
3. All quests were chosen at least once. This indicates to me that there is indeed quite a diversity in students and the ways in which they like to engage with the subject matter. Students also indicated they liked the ability to choose.
4. The administration of the quests and the different types of points was a bit of a hassle. I didn’t like it, and when I had to do it in class it took valuable time which I could have spent engaging with the students.

Iterating on the design
A year after first using the quests, I had the opportunity to iterate on the design. I updated the skilltree to match the new textbook, and changed some of the rules of the quests. First, I removed all points and leaderboards, and just asked all students to do at least two of the quests. Because I couldn’t make more difficult quests give more points anymore, I had to change and combine some quests to make them roughly equal in size. These changes removed a large part of the administration, and made sure no one could get away with doing nothing. Students appreciated the choice given, and different quests were chosen. However, there was a negative effect of no one going beyond the call of duty by doing more than two quests.

In a week I will again start the chapter of magnetism for the new vwo 5. Here I will keep the rules of the previous year mostly intact, with one addition. I would like for students to go beyond the minimum requirements. And while I have become way more judicious with rewards and prizes, this is a place where I find it actually fitting.
Students who finish at least 4 of the quests will receive a joker at their final test. This is a sticker they can put on their answer sheet at one of the questions. Doing so means they will receive at least half of the points of that particular question. This will never add more than a couple of tenths to their grade (on a scale of 1 to 10), and really good students won’t even need it. Still, the certainty it provides is something students actually value.
I hope this will solve most of the main issues I encountered when first doing this chapter, while keeping the benefits of autonomy and differentiation.

So what can you take away from this article? First and foremost: if your first design doesn’t work as intended, you don’t necessarily have to throw it away. Especially in education, with long times between uses, designs are too often seen as "fire-and-forget".

Secondly, I want to stress the importance of evaluating your design. That means of course observing the classroom and the behavior your design evokes in both your students and yourself. But also talking with the students about how they experienced the lessons. In addition to this, I recommend handing out the occasional questionnaire or even asking some students to sit down with you in a focus group. Students, even quite young ones, can usually tell you a lot about what they need and want.

Finally, I hope you can learn from the designs themselves, as well as from the motivations behind some of the decisions.

Good luck with gamifying your own environment!