Get Your Game On: Boost Content Area Learning with Gamification Guest Blog Post for Project ReimaginED – ISTE

The following post was written and published for ISTE Project ReimaginED.

Gamification is about transforming the classroom environment and regular activities into a game. There are numerous ways to bring games and game playing into the content area classroom to promote learning and deepen student understanding. Whether teachers are looking to bring in some aspect of gaming into their class or utilize a game platform across the curriculum, they can bring in elements of gamification to enhance learning and student engagement, tap into Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and attain ISTE Standards.

I first gamified my middle school English class last year and I have continued this quest for a second consecutive year. The response from my students has been positive and enthusiastic. Participation has increased among my students and students are inclined to do additional work for the game. Within my classroom I have eliminated homework grades in lieu of game points and on a weekly basis I have students battle each other for powers and privileges. Privileges include asking the Gamemaster (aka, the teacher) if her/his answer to a question is correct on a test and getting an extension on an assignment. Students earn points by being positive and hardworking in class, correctly answering a question in class, or helping another student. At the same time, students can also lose points by disrupting the class or coming to class unprepared. I am currently using Class Craft, an awesome gaming platform that has allowed me to turn my classroom into a role playing adventure. My students sign a “Hero Pact” which articulates the rules and goals of the game and they have Avatars. As the Gamemaster, I am able to customize the rules to fit my students needs.

Good gamification promotes problem solving and collaboration and failure is an essential source of feedback and learning.  Gamification is not worksheets for points; facts and information are used as tools for learning and assessment. Effective games are customized to different learners and  students are encouraged to take risks and seek alternative solutions. In classrooms today, it’s not only about learning content material. Students must experience and build the necessary skills to be creators, innovators, and problem solvers in order to develop critical thinking and improve academic achievement.

Here are some ideas to promote transformative learning experiences with gamification.

Collaboration & Teamwork

The Beatles sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends,” and I transfer this principle to my classroom with gamification. Learning is not an isolated task. When students work collaboratively, there is more ownership of the material and more opportunities to contribute in class.  In my classroom students are assigned a team. Each team comprises four or five students, depending on the class size. Students work both independently and cooperatively within our gaming structure to earn powers than unlock privileges. Because I teach English, the team names are based on genres, authors, and book titles from Young Adult Literature. For example, in one class,  team names are based on current fantasy based young adult literature—Potter, Eregon, Everlost, and Land of Nod—and in another class team names are based on contemporary YA dystopian texts—5th Wave, Divergent, Legend, Matrix, and Rook.  Teachers can have students pick their own team names for ownership in the game.

ISTE Standards for Students #2, Creativity and Innovation, states: “Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively … to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.” Working collaboratively helps students enhance their oral communication skills and meet the Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1). Students meet this CCSS by working in cooperative groups and teams, and then participating in “conversations and collaborations with diverse partners.” Teamwork and collaboration requires students to listen to one another and broaden their roles as dominant speakers in the classroom, rather than a teacher presenting and students only listening. As teammates, students “work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.B) Working with student teams also requires teachers to model and practice how to work well with one another and resolve conflicts in positive ways addressing ISTE Standards for Teachers  1.d: “Model collaborative knowledge construction by engaging in learning with students, colleagues, and others in face-to-face and virtual environments.”

Challenges & Quests

Design a quest or challenge that sparks learning and engagement. While my students are reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I have them complete a “Mockingbird Amazing Race” QR Code Quest. Each team of students is given a map with QR codes that takes them around the school to complete text based activities. Students use their mobile devices to read the QR Codes at the different stations and complete the challenges. I designed the Mockingbird Amazing Race for students to “apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and synthesize information” (ISTE Standards for Students #3, Research and Information Fluency) about the text and and standards.

World History teacher Michael Matera uses simulations as a teaching tool with his sixth grade students. He designed a China Silk Road Simulation to bring to life entrepreneurship, supply and demand, the power of negotiation, and the costs and benefits of technology for society. He describes all the ingredients and directions for the simulation on his blog. The goal of the simulation is to have a rich product diversity without conflict. Throughout the simulation, Matera stops to ask questions to the groups about their choices and their connections to the learning objectives.

Leveling Up

Some students are motivated by badges or points. In my classroom, points unlock powers. Powers are important features that represent privileges players earn as they progress in the game. Some powers are cooperative where others only benefit the individual player. With Class Craft, players must level up to earn Power Points so that they can unlock new powers. Once a power has been learned, they can use it for the rest of the game. Some individual powers have nothing to do with English but they are still fun. When my first ten students earned over 1,000 points, I brought in doughnuts for them to eat during class. Many of my students are working towards the power that gives them access to their notes during a test.  The key is that leveling up, badges, and points track mastery.  Students can even contribute to how they earn the points and suggest powers or privileges.  Gamification facilitates more responsibility on the part of the student to take charge of their learning.

Wheel of Destiny

Want to inject a bit of a lottery system or the selection process from the reaping in The Hunger Games, but with less deadly consequences? Utilize a Wheel of Destiny or Random Name Generator to select students to complete a mission or answer a question. Students will be sitting on the edge of their chairs, but the spontaneous, random events/selection gets everyone involved. Good games are not predictable. And as with all games so too in your classroom: predictable can quickly become all too boring. Keep students on their toes and engaged in the game with random selection and events.

Boss Battles

Transform assessments with Boss Battles. A “boss” in gaming is a villain who the hero must face and defeat to save the day. Think of the monster at the end of each level in the original Super Marios Bros. who must be defeated before moving to the next level.  The boss is the final challenge a player faces and utilizes his or her skills and abilities to defeat the boss. Boss Battles can be used as reviews or as a test. Check out how Mallory Kesson of Gamindex uses Boss Battles in her classroom by posting multiple choice questions on the SMARTBoard and giving students 30 seconds to select the correct answer. If the student answers incorrectly, the boss will attack. If a teammate has the correct answer, a student can dodge the attack, but if you miss, the entire team takes damage and loses points. When Boss Battles ask higher order thinking questions, students are “using critical thinking skills to plan and solve problems, and make informed decisions,”thus meeting ISTE Standard for Students #4, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.

Teacher as Gamester

Gamification can be lots of fun for students and teachers alike. At the same time, gamification can help students build skills and confidence. In gamifying one’s class, the learning goals and objectives should be the guide. Think about how you will assess your students and help them meet the learning targets. Gamification privileges and powers have replaced extra credit in my classroom. As a reminder, homework in my class is not graded, but students earn Class Craft points. All tests, quizzes, and assessments that measure learning goals are uploaded onto Class Craft for additional points. Students are not penalized grade-wise if their work is late because they are graded based on the standards; however, in the game they deal with the damage of that lateness and can fall in battle. As the Gamemaster, one must be consistent and fair, adjust settings for different groups of students, and create flexible learning goals to meet the needs of all students. Effective Gamemasters “model and apply the ISTE Standards for Students as they design, implement, and assess learning experiences to engage students and improve learning.”

If you are considering implementing gamification into your classroom, check out Class Craft or read Michael Matera’s book, Explore Like a PIRATE: Gamification and Game-Inspired Course Design to Engage, Enrich and Elevate Your Learners. As the Gamemaster, you have the ability to transform your classroom with games, quests, and adventures that can inspire and empower student learners.

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