Gamification in STEM education

“Why are we learning about acids and bases?” my student once asked me.

“Well,” I said with confidence, “the chemistry of acids and bases underlie many important industrial and commercial applications…”

“No, how will I use it in my life,” my student interjected.

Okay, so maybe he wouldn’t enter into a science related career in the future, so I said, “well, I would remind you that you have your O Levels coming up next year, and if you don’t master this subject, you might have difficulties getting into the post-secondary education of your choice.”

He didn’t seem convinced. “How is it useful?” he asked.

“If you use it in your exams, isn’t it useful?” Slightly frustrated, I said, “If you aren’t finding it useful, that means you aren’t using it enough. I shall give you more homework then.”

Going home and thinking about this whole conversation, I realised that if I were to ask him, “why are you learning how to play this computer game? How is it useful?”; he will probably laugh my question off as ridiculous. There is a certain inherent joy sparked when a hobbyist plays a computer game, and that fuels an intrinsic motivation to get better at it. Can we harness this source of intrinsic motivation – the power of fun – to improve our classroom education?

That is the whole idea of gamification.

According to Wikipedia, “Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organisations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users.” This is more difficult than it sounds, since computer games are strategically made by professional designers and even psychologists to capture the greatest attention and interest of the player.

Of course, we can never expect a classroom lesson on stoichiometry to be as engaging as a Call of Duty game, but we can insert subtle gamification techniques into our lessons. Splitting classrooms up into teams and having competitive quizzes through platforms like Kahoot is one way. This method of gamification involves the concepts of challenge and reward – students are engaged with a challenging quiz with rewards for good performance, thus incentivising classroom participation.

Gamification can be conducted in more subtle ways though. Setting goals for students to achieve can be one way. These goals need not always be raw scores in examinations, but can be general goals of improvement. Positive marking – rewarding students for each correct point answered, is also more encouraging to students than negative marking (deducting marks for missing answers and points).

One other method would be role-playing. The most successful video games – The Legend of Zelda, Call of Duty, Civilisation V, etc., all involve role-playing of some sort, playing the role of a character in a coherent storyline as the backdrop. We can co-opt this idea for our classroom lessons, getting students to play the role of scientists trying to design an experiment, engineers trying to solve a problem… the possibilities are endless, and it also ties in nicely to the idea of transforming STEM education into one focused on creative thinking and problem solving.

However, the most important criterion that will make gamification successful is interaction between teacher and student. Often, the most frustrating thing for students is wanting to improve, but not knowing how to improve due to barriers in communication between student and teacher. With regular communication and accessible feedback channels between educators and students, student morale can be kept up and learners kept encouraged to best themselves in studying!