Keys to engaging your learners with gamification

If we want to get time and attention from our learners, let’s start by recognizing how important these are for them and how we can tap into their motivations for sustained and enduring learning. Once we start to think of our learning experiences this way, gamification can help make this come true.

This post is originally published at eLearning Industry.

Let’s start with a working definition for gamification. I’ll take this from Sebastian Deterding

“The use of game design elements in non-game contexts.”

Notice the importance here of the fact that this definition does not imply that using gamification will turn activities into a game or thinking that our users are gamers themselves. What gamification does is extract ideas and learnings from an industry that dedicates a lot of effort to keep its users engaged, most of the time for the sole purpose of entertainment. We have seen how many of these techniques are successfully applied to contexts different to entertainment, such as employee engagement, marketing, even customer service, and most importantly for us: to learning.

By thinking of our learners not as people that will dive into our courses because they have to (even if, indeed, they have to), but that we have to compete for their time and attention, taking into account their motivations, then we can immensely increase the successful learning that participants will obtain from what we design. Yu-kai Chou thinks of gamification like “Human-focused design” as opposed to “Function-focused design”. If we shift our focus from just delivering the content that is necessary into how can we deliver the content so the participants will engage with it and learn, we have taken perhaps the most important step in using gamification for learning: thinking of our users first.

Once we are able to shift our minds in the right direction, we can take a look at specific techniques and elements that have been successfully used in games to engage users. Here we will discuss three that I think are are particularly useful to the field of learning:

1. Storytelling

One of them that I’ve found useful is the use of narrative, something that gamification guru Monica Cornetti says should be the starting point of a gamified training (an example of her ideas here). This can be especially useful as it caters to a fundamental way we humans have used to learn for thousands of years, storytelling. It has the added advantage that, if well crafted and intertwined into the learning, greatly helps to immerse the participants. Most games have a hero’s journey, creating one for our participants is making good use of this idea.

2. Social Influence

Another mechanic that is widely used in gamification is the social interaction between participants. We could spend many lines in favor or against social learning, but here I’m referring to social aspects to help keep the participants engaged and learning.

If you’ve been creating and delivering courses for some time, more than once you’ve encountered a room (whether physical or virtual) with learners on disparate levels of knowledge on your topic. If we simply focus on delivering the same concepts and level for everyone, the chances are that it will be either too challenging for some, meaningless for others or both. When working in groups, many times they will get away with the expert doing all the work, and not learn anything new, while those with less knowledge don’t much learn either as they end up functioning as a notary. What if, instead of traditional groups, we establish a mentor/mentee relationship between those with broad differences in their current expertise in the topic? The mentees can benefit from the advice of the mentors, while the mentors can have the opportunity of increasing their status as an expert, and also getting positive reinforcement from their brains by helping others. On this last part, you can see more information by Dr. Richard Suster’s “The Daily Helping” where, amongst other things, he uses science to explain how helping others is actually something we benefit from immediately. Of course, there are many online games that provide this opportunity where newcomers get a hand at starting and more advanced players are available to help. This increases the engagement of both as it reduces the frustrations for the newcomer and provides a greater purpose for the advanced ones. This is just one example of how the power of a peer group can be catered, if you’re interested in more of these subscribe here to Professor Game and get a lot more of these ideas to apply.

3. Progress

Finally, we will discuss progress. What I mean here is that in most games you have always a way to know where you are standing with respect to your mission, some sort of feedback that works as a reminder. When within a learning environment, it is fundamental for the participant to know where they are in their journey with respect to the objectives of the course. This applies just as well to a single 45-minute class as to a year-long learning experience. There are many ways to implement this, also many ways the students create their own paths to understand where they’re at.

Perhaps the most obvious is when they figure out how many slides have passed in a lecture and how many more are left. Even though surprise is also an engaging element, used in games, movies and many others, this is probably not the thing you might want to surprise your participants with. The simplest way of doing this is providing some sort of a progress bar. This is what LinkedIn used to nudge its users into completing their profile and even though we can hardly think of LinkedIn as a game, this is a clear application of gamification. Another way of providing this kind of feedback to the learners is by showing a general overview of what the course will touch upon, and reviewing in each new setting this overview and where the course stands with relation to it.

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