Gamification is an approach to motivating students by incorporating game elements into the learning environment. These game mechanics can be used as motivational tools to encourage student engagement and achievement.

When most people think about gamification in education, they think of achievement markers such as class leaderboards, badges, or a leveling system. While these tools can be motivating for some students, many others will not find them engaging if the activities used to earn them are standard classwork. In fact, this form of extrinsic motivation may simply feel like another form of grading to some learners [1]. To gamify content, start by focusing on elements that make games rewarding and have a direct benefit to the student and then incorporate achievement markers on top of those aspects if desired. For example, collaboration in games can foster social connections among students, which is an important component of student success [2]. Additionally, the creative problem solving aspects of games are a large part of what makes them fun. This element can be adapted to encourage students to grapple with difficult concepts in the course content.

Gamification can be a course-long endeavor, or it can be incorporated into individual activities to spark interest. The best way to use gamification is to embed the game elements into the course content to spur students to think deeply and discover important things about the material.

Application to all courses

With some creativity, game mechanics can be incorporated into educational contexts and motivate students to think more critically about a course.

Here are some examples of how teachers can use gamification to encourage learning in the online classroom:

  • Achievement – While achievement markers like badges or levels should not be the only aspect of gamification you use, they can be rewarding to some students. Tie them with graduated challenges that start easy and get harder, and allow students multiple attempts with quick feedback so they have the freedom to fail, try again, and improve.
  • Assignment Choice – Allow students to select the type of assessment they prefer for a given objective or set of objectives. In some courses, it makes sense for students to select their route through course material based on their preferred learning method.
  • Collaborative Activities – Working with their classmates to solve problems or complete tasks can make students feel connected and expose them to different ways of thinking. For example, three groups of engineering students could design a bridge with the same materials. To encourage students to engage more deeply with the process, new groups made up of members from each original group could compare their results and discuss their different approaches.
  • Online Scavenger Hunt – Build online research skills by asking students, either individually or in groups, to find examples or data for their course and reward those who finish promptly and thoroughly. For example, sociology students might comb through public posts on social media to find examples of certain types of behavior, or linguistics students might find samples of a particular accent or dialect on YouTube.
  • Resource Management – Give students a (possibly imaginary) resource that they must distribute in different ways to create different outcomes. For example, help students in a history class understand the pressures facing an ancient society by giving them the same resources and asking them to justify how they would allocate them.
  • Rewards and perks – Give students a reward to earn, or a perk which is theirs to lose if they do not participate as expected. One professor gave optional quizzes throughout the semester, and students who did not do well on them were required to take the otherwise optional final exam [3].
  • Role Playing – Encourage students to gain a broader understanding of other roles in their field through role play, such as nursing students acting in various roles in a pretend hospital to grow their ability to interact with doctors, patients, administrators, and pharmacists in an effective and empathetic way [1]. Additionally, students can play the role of an instructor to develop “test” questions to help them identify the most important elements of the material and potential ways of misunderstanding it.
  • Storytelling Elements – Embed course content in a context that gives students a more thorough understanding of what they are learning and how to apply it. For example, students in a physics class could design catapults and trebuchets to attack a medieval castle [1].

Best Practices

Before you gamify an online course, keep in mind that course design should always be a flexible process and that it’s not necessary or recommended to make numerous changes at one time. Start small, assess how a game mechanic worked during the semester, and adjust for the next. Always remember to:

  • Maintain privacy of student grades at all times.
  • Factor in the instructor-time necessary to implement any game mechanics you intend to incorporate.
  • Check that any software application you want to use is already integrated into the LMS, and has passed the security vetting process.
  • Determine whether your LMS can handle the design you have in mind.
  • Consult with an instructional designer if you have questions.

Consider the outcome you hope to achieve in gamifying your course. Do the mechanics you plan to include help to create an active learning environment, and do the activities you are asking students to participate in align with the learning objectives you have set out for them? While these materials may make a course more fun for students, the goal should always be to improve their learning.

References and Additional Resources


[1] UB GSE Practical Guide to Meaningful Gamification

[2] Learning at a Distance, Engaged or Not?

[3] Basu, T. (2016)The Cut, “This professor thinks he’s figured out how to get students to study” 

Further Exploration

Marasco, E. et al (2017). Papers on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, “Curious Conversations: Using Game-Based Learning to Develop Creative Culture within Technical Courses”

Mintz, S. (2014). Inside Higher Ed, “A Gamified Approach to Teaching and Learning”

Toyama, K. (2015) The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Looming Gamification of Higher Ed”