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Gamifying Homework

Badges!If the success of sites like Gowalla, Foursquare, and other game-like forms of social media tells us much, it’s that people will do *anything* for a virtual badge. The attempt to capitalize on this behavior has been called gamification, since it borrows some of the reward structures of game mechanics and applies them to everyday tasks. While the premise behind it has been around for a while, as Wikipedia notes, it has started to get more attention from venture capitalists, developers, and researchers in 2010.

While not everyone may be ready to assent to Eric Schmidt’s thesis that “Everything in the future online is going to look like a multiplayer game,” it’s hard to deny that structuring learning experiences around frustration/reward dynamics can lead to engaged learners. Critics warn that too-shallow an interpretation of game mechanics will lead either to an excessive focus on points, or to missing the open-ended possibilities of gaming. (Updated to add: Kotaku has a provocatively-titled piece on this today: “Video Games Keep Tricking Us Into Doing Things We Loathe.”)

Richard Landers, an industrial/organizational psychologist at Old Dominion University, is testing gamification’s usefulness for basic problems, such as getting undergrads to do their homework. He has built a social network for psychology students, using some basic gamification principles to get students to engage with the material and to mentor one another. He notes, with some surprise, that students took quickly to this:

Across those 400 students, 113 (28%!) willingly chose to take optional multiple choice quizzes. If you’re an educator like I am, you are probably shaking your head in disbelief right now – 28% of students willingly completed optional multiple choice quizzes that would never have an effect on their grades. That’s absolutely amazing to me every time I think about it. Especially fantastic is that simply spending time completing the quizzes exposes them to course material more than they otherwise would have been exposed – meaning they were more likely to learn something!

On the one hand, offering a virtual badge for doing an optional quiz isn’t exactly open-ended gameplay. On the other hand, as I’ve argued before, regular quizzes can be useful in all sorts of situations, provided that you don’t overstate their importance. Shifting from a grades-based to a gaming-based model for such low-stakes assignments might be interesting.

Landers is currently seeking collaborators for an NSF grant proposal that would explore these results in other contexts (other kinds of universities, other departments, etc.). If you can see how such a tool might be useful in your department, why not get in touch with him?

Also, what other kinds of low-stakes gamelike approaches might work in your classes? Let us know in comments.

Photo by Flickr user hyperdashery / Creative Commons licensed

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