7 tips to effectively use games and gamification in the college classroom

By Min Xiao
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Min Xiao

Min Xiao

Many people think educational games are for elementary school students and adults are too old to play them. In fact, games are widely used in both academic and professional trainings.

In universities, some professors ask their students to role-play being a manager in a company to solve real-world business issues. This activity is actually a role-playing game.

In the professional world, many companies use games as major team-building activities during orientation for new employees.

When people play games, they are usually very happy. This positive mood helps them to learn knowledge quicker and better than usual.

Another way to enliven the class is to use a technique called gamification. People often confuse gamification with using games in class. In fact, the two concepts are very different.

Gamification means borrowing game elements and applying these elements in non-game situations. For instance, teachers can adopt ranking and rewarding systems from video games and apply them in their class. The structure of the class is like a game, but students may not play a real game in the class.

In these courses, student will be more motivated to acquire knowledge through competition and collaboration than by using conventional means. Gamification is a trending concept that has been widely applied in marketing, education, scientific research, and military trainings.

I have few tips to offer fellow teachers in order to help you use of games and gamification in your class.

Tips for using games in your class:

1.     Know the theory behind the game

As a college teacher, you might be curious about why playing games can help us learn. Theories are guidelines that help us find the answer. Constructivist, constructionist, and flow theories will be very helpful for you to understand why using games can be beneficial in promoting learning in the college classroom.

2.     Rules matter

Games are usually based on rules. When you try to create you own educational games, the first step is to think about game elements. Then, you need to come up with rules that can connect these elements. Good rules will motivate students to participate in the game and foster a positive learning environment in the classroom.

3.     Compatibility with your class

There are different types of games. Some are digital, some are physical, and some are hybrid (alternate-reality games). What type of game you use depends on the size of the class and the content you teach. If you are teaching 200 students in an introductory level course about mass communication theories, you don’t want your students to play a game that requires each of them to speak in front of the class because this will use up too much of your teaching time. Additionally, the game may not be suitable for them to be able to understand and analyze different theories. In this case, you can ask your students to play a digital game about mass media at home, or you can ask your students to play a game to study different theories in groups during the class.

4.     Be wise with timing

Class size, course length, and students’ level of knowledge all influence the time that you can allocate to your gaming activities. If you let your students play games for the entire class, your students may feel like you’re evading your responsibility to teach. If you lecture all the time, they may be bored. I suggest that you spend around 15 minutes for gaming activities in a 45-minutes class.

Tips for gamification:

1.     Be creative in constructing rank-and-point system

People tend to relate a ranking and point accumulating system to charts and numbers. In fact, you can make this system more interesting than just numbers. One strategy is to use various tokens. For example, you can create artificial gold coins as points and give them to students based on their performance in different tasks. You can give them different pins or badges that represent their rankings.

2.     Choose appropriate rewards

Giving extra credit is a typical way to reward top-ranking students. (Some teachers even reward students with cash. However, monetary rewards could be less appropriate for students who are taking principles of philosophy than those who are taking introduction to marketing. And using monetary rewards have financial and ethical difficulties for instructors.) The key to giving students the appropriate reward is to find what motivates them. There are many ways to reward your students beyond money and extra credit.

3.     Consider the length of gamification

You need to decide whether you want to gamify part of your course or you plan to gamify the entire course throughout the semester. Different lengths of gamification will require you to spend different amounts of time and effort in your preparation. You may want to gamify one module of section of your course first to see how that works before deciding to gamify the entire class. Make sure you consider it that, before you start to implement your ideas.

Here are some references and resources that I think will be helpful for you to understand how to use games and gamification in college level classes:

Bishop, M. J. (Ed.). (2008). Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikzentmihaly, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 41). New York: HarperPerennial.

Leaning, M. (2015). A study of the use of games and gamification to enhance student engagement, experience and achievement on a theory-based course of an undergraduate media degree. Journal of Media Practice, 16(2), 155-170.

Ma, M., Oikonomou, A., & Jain, L. C. (2011). Serious games and edutainment applications (p. 520). Berlin: Springer.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books, Inc..

Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, 1-11.

An example of using games to train future journalists:

The difference between game-based learning and gamification:

Min Xiao is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and is a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). This blog post is based on a teaching presentation he made in class.


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