True Gamification in Learning

Roger Stark, Co-founder and CEO, BrainWare Learning and Betsy Hill, President, BrainWare Learning
Roger Stark, Co-founder and CEO, BrainWare Learning

Roger Stark, Co-founder and CEO, BrainWare Learning

With so many students participating (more or less) in remote learning this year, technology-delivered instruction has increased exponentially, but what hasn’t increased exponentially is student engagement.  It is asking too much of most students to stay focused and active during a standard-length class period online.  It didn’t always work that well in a regular classroom, for that matter, but it is incredibly challenging these days.  Many adults are faced with the same challenge as they struggle to sustain their focus during online meetings and trainings. While we talk about educational programs and students in this article, the same principles apply in workforce training.

Gamifying instruction is one of the ways that educators/trainers and the developers of educational programs try to capture the attention and active participation of students.  Gamification is powerful and helps engage students, but it doesn’t always further instructional objectives.  There is a critical difference between adding gamification to an educational program and truly gamifying it.

What is the difference?  It has to do with the way the elements of game design are used.  Many programs add elements like graphics and points to what is otherwise typical educational or training curriculum, say practice of math facts or spelling words – or training on compliance or diversity.

Let’s look at a spelling example.  Students practice spelling words day in and day out in elementary school.  Weekly spelling tests and spelling bees are ubiquitous.  The “adding gamification approach” uses technology and some spelling characters to do the same thing that kids do on their own – rote rehearsal of spelling words.  With this approach, maybe when they spell the word or a set of words correctly, fireworks go off or a bunch of aliens start applauding or they get 5 points to buy something for their avatar.  While this approach might keep students practicing a little longer – if the avatar is really interesting and the things you can buy for it are really cool – but it is unlikely to improve spelling skills beyond this week’s test.  It doesn’t do anything for the ways our brains actually learn the patterns of spelling and it gives them no practice with those skills.

Let’s look at another approach – true gamification for skill development – and for this example, we won’t use a hypothetical; we’ll use a real program called LiteracyPlanet.  Students have a choice of a dozen or more games that they can use to practice spelling words.  Some games involve recognition, others require distinguishing words from similar words, putting words in alphabetical order, visualizing where the letters of a word would be placed and getting them in the right spots, or on hearing and then spelling the word (dictation).  We call this true gamification because the games themselves practice the cognitive processes our mind use to perform the tasks and master the skill.  In this case, the games develop visual discrimination, verbal reasoning, visual memory, sequential processing, working memory, and visualization, among others.   We see students who use LiteracyPlanet spending less time learning spelling words, having way more fun with it, and developing deeper and more enduring word skills.  That is the purpose of true gamification – delivering better outcomes.

If LiteracyPlanet is a great example of a program that gamifies skill development, then BrainWare SAFARI takes it to an unprecedented level.  It is the most researched, comprehensive integrated cognitive training program delivered online in the world.  It combines multi-disciplinary clinical techniques and the best of video-game technology to develop 43 cognitive skills that are the foundation for learning.  What students experience as games are actually exercises that strengthen the cognitive processes involved in learning.  The video-game elements embody the way the skills get built and then reflect that growth – for example, with an avatar that grows up as the player masters higher and higher levels of performance. 

The value for users?  Learning that is less effortful and longerlasting resulting in accelerated acquisition of academic and real-life skills.  For students (of any age) who struggle with learning because of specific learning disabilities, the result is significantly closing the gap to their typically developing peers.  Teachers see multiple reading level gains, improved math performance, better behavior and more effort in the classroom.  Parents see children who can complete their homework in a reasonable amount of time, who participate more in dinner-table conversations and who bounce back from mistakes and setbacks more readily.  Schools see achievement gaps close in a meaningful way, more students qualifying for gifted programs and fewer students needing special education services.  Workplaces see employees who can think and problem-solve better and who learn better and more rapidly the skills they need, dramatically increasing the value of training programs.

Our brains love games and games can be almost perfect pedagogy.  In a game environment, we get to lose, fail and learn.  The purpose of a game is to practice and get better at something, to try different things, experience a variety of outcomes and take that experience with us to “real life.”  Just adding gamification to an activity that doesn’t produce real learning is like putting lipstick on a pig.  When we truly gamify, we create the explore-lose-fail-retry-learn feedback loopthat users want to engage in and that they leave with new skills that are there for them to use.

Over the last couple of years, since being named one of the top companies in gamification worldwide by CIO Review, we have increased our focus on measuring and developing the cognitive processes that are the foundation for performance in school, the workplace and real life and delivering meaningful and measurable outcomes for learning success through true gamification.