Successful gamified scenarios build productive failure, not just fun, into their design--here's how to navigate a gamified platform adoption.

Key considerations when adopting a gamified edtech platform


Successful gamified scenarios build productive failure, not just fun, into their design

Key points:

  • A gamified learning approach isn’t just about building up points–students must be motivated and engaged with learning material
  • Educators must be careful about over-gamifying or using gamification merely to follow a trend
  • See related article: A gamified career academy aims to boost student success

Colleges and universities are facing mounting pressure to demonstrate the value of a degree and protect students from crushing debt or insufficient earnings. Retaining and graduating more students with in-demand STEM skills will make it easier to justify the cost of education and meet proposed regulations from the Department of Education.

But to plug the leaky STEM pipeline and get more students to stay the course, teachers are challenged to make traditional classroom settings feel as relevant and captivating to the digital natives of Gen Z as the trusty social mobile apps they’ve grown up with–apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, designed to be as appealing as chocolate. 

It’s tough for educators with very limited budgets to get access to the interesting tools, material, equipment, and field trips that can successfully compete for students’ shortened attention spans. Even with a course topic as fascinating as science, a textbook and a video (if you’re lucky) aren’t enough to captivate most students these days, especially the back-row ones.

Student disengagement and alienation is a serious issue as it can lead to failed and dropped classes or even complete school withdrawal. The National Center for Safe Supportive Learning Environments offers suggestions for instructors in their efforts to capture students’ long-term attention, which can include identifying and adopting helpful edtech tools and providing resources that support teaching in a way that resonates with and engages students more deeply.

Failure with fun

There’s plenty of evidence that the application of gamification techniques to learning is a successful complement to traditional education methodologies for improving student motivation, as described in a 2021 study in Frontiers in Psychology. However, we have to be careful about over-gamifying or using gamification merely to follow the trend. I see a lot of edtech tools that are really fun to use and offer an enthralling game, but when you evaluate the actual learning outcomes … the value is less apparent. 

It’s critical to remember when deciding to adopt a gamification platform that enthusiasm alone does not necessarily equal learning. The tool needs to get the balance right between learning outcomes and engagement. Serious subjects like science lab simulations, for example, should not be competing with video game studios to elicit endorphins; they should be competing for students’ interest and curiosity to elicit participation and engagement.

One of the dangers I see in the recent overemphasis on gamification is that game designers coming into education software development from the entertainment gaming industry may have a default assumption that the goal is to keep the student playing at all costs, even if it means pointing the player to an easier path. If the player gets frustrated and hesitates, the game is designed to re-engage them. “Ping, ping. Struggling? Don’t worry, you can get some points over here.” 

However, struggle and frustration, when well-balanced, can be good for learning. Learning is often uncomfortable while it’s happening; just ask STEM students trying to master the principles of organic chemistry or calculus! Scientific research conducted by universities like ETH Zurich points to the benefit of productive failure as a teaching tool. Or as Yale researchers put it, “We only learn when there is uncertainty.”

The most useful gamified edtech tools provide thoughtful scaffolding, such as a psychologically safe space, self-pacing, targeted feedback, encouragement, and opportunities to replay until mastery is achieved. It helps the student to be challenged to understand, “Why did I get that wrong? What was it that I didn’t understand?” and to compare and contrast results for a deeper understanding. “Why did I get this one right, but not that one?” 

Creating friction

Streamlining is not uniformly effective for engaged learning. User experience developers may consider reintroducing a little friction into user flows to stimulate engagement and learning. It’s possible to speed a student too quickly towards a particular stage of the learning journey. When the student reaches that level, if they don’t have the right amount of onboarding or product education, they may become easily discouraged and drop off, as noted in a 2022 Pennsylvania State University research study on introductory STEM courses.

A gamified scenario should challenge the student player to reflect on their choices and think critically about their options. If the student feels a sense of investment effort in the learning experience, it becomes more meaningful, memorable, and useful. A game design that is balanced well in terms of sound pedagogy along with the fun, absorbing aspects of playing, can produce remarkable results.

Related: 8 things pushing the growth of game-based learning

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