Pwning the Humanities: Gamification in the Classroom


As the concept of gamification evolves markets to engage customers, teachers are searching for new methods to motivate students in a classroom that is often listless and rigid. Recent trends in education are demanding individual differentiation for students, but the only answers are layered tools atop existing curriculum and classroom structures. Gamification offers an opportunity to redefine the way we run classrooms, providing diverse challenges for engaged students with multiple dimensions of differentiations (addressing pace, choice, and ability) as well as an assessment system focusing on mastery of skills instead of punishment for mistakes. Students' feelings of stress and anxiety diminish in such a context because the desire to keep trying and to level up replace any extraneous fears about failing. Gamification turns the classroom into a learning community, but still provides an authority role for the teacher as facilitator and learning manager.

Come learn how gamification is moving into the curriculum through the successes and failures of a gamified course on Macbeth offered during the spring of 2015. Serious gaming brings students the opportunity for project-based learning, collaboration, differentiation, and adaptive expertise. This session will cover the elements of gamification, an overview of a curriculum currently being used, and hands-on time to discover your own gamified route. 


Seth Burgess 
Director of Lausanne Learning and Collaborative Institute 
Lausanne Collegiate School 
Memphis, TN

Jared Colley 
Head of English Department 
The Oakridge School 
Arlington, TX 

I. What is Gamification?

"Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems in a non-game context." -Karl Kapp
Karl Kapp's video on Gamification:

2 interesting key distinctions:
-Game-Based Learning vs. Gamification
-Structural Gamification vs. Content Gamification

Avi Spector emphasizes (among other points) the idea of "Failing Forward" which encourages students to learn from mistakes:

Avi Spector's 7 Key Points of Gamification:
-Recognition of ALL efforts
-Gaining 'XP' Points & Leveling Up
-Choice & Nonlinear Curriculum
-"Failing Forward"/Mastery
-More Immediate Feedback
-Differentiated Learning
-Incremental Challenges/Mastery

Avi Spector's 2 Essentials for a Gamified Classroom Environment:
-Flipped Instruction
-BYOD when they need it.

Here's one more helpful resource from Philip Vinogradov's EduCon presentation.

4 areas where we saw "game changing" benefits for any classroom culture:
1. Increased levels of choice & independence made students more motivated.
2. XP Grading was affirmation-based, not punitive.
3. More relevant and immediate feedback made learning more individualized & meaningful.
4. There was no reason to fear failure.
(more on these insights can be found below...)

II. What Our Unit Looked Like & How We Executed It:

Here's a brief desription of what we did for our unit:

Students read the Shakespearean Tragedy Macbeth, and using, students could earn access to 6 different "courses" - each functioning (for our purposes) as “levels.” All students began with an access code to enter “level 1,” and all students started with ZERO “XP” points (as opposed to starting at 100% and being graded punitively). Students could gain XP points by completing both the required assignments of a given level (examples: small written essays, digital essays, performances of play, online quizzes, etc.) and what we called “optional grind assignments” (examples: translating lines to modern English, making props, designing costumes & sets, posting on the blog). Students were not graded on an A to F scale for these individual assignments; they were either awarded the full XP points (which could be 5, 10, 20, or more depending on the volume of work) or nothing (if they did not master the task). ONLY when they had mastered the task (meaning some students made multiple attempts) would students be given credit, and they were not penalized for making multiple attempts. Once enough points were gained, a student received a new access code to move on to the next level. As they moved up the levels assignments got more challenging, but the students had more and more options as well. We tried to make assignments at each progressive "level" build on that which preceded it by way of modeling the sequenced levels on Bloom's taxonomy of learning domains. Some students never made it to level 6 "to beat the game,” but the beautiful thing was that a student could stay at level four but do enough “grind assignments” to ensure a superior score by the end of the project.

The digital platform or interface we used to deliver the "gamified" curriculum was Schoology 

We also posted work, shared questions & research, and interacted across campuses using blogger at

Seth Burgess also used Classcraft as a system for making and developing avatars for each student who participated in the gamified unit on Shakespeare.

Here's what some of the "levels" looked like when students entered the access code:

Example of an Installment in the Game's story:

An Example of a Required Assignment at Level One:

Examples of Optional "Grind" Assignments for Extra XP Points:

Examples of what students encounter at higher levels of the game:

Key Elements of Gamification in the Above Examples:
-Implementation of Levels, each requiring a new access code ("Structural Gamification") & use of XP scoring
-Choice & Variety in relation to assignments, which served each unique learning style ("Structural Gamification")
-Story Element ("Cordelia's Obsession" - an example of "Content Gamification")
-Emphasis on Mastery, using simple and clear rubrics (like the COLM rubric)
-Multiple Pathways towards success & discovery (both due to Actor/Director/Producer options and due to "Grind Assignments")
-Incremental Challenges as Levels increase based on Bloom's Taxonomy, with higher levels providing opportunity for students to practice SYNTHESIS, EVALUATION and CREATION:

III. Data, Student Feedback, & Conclusions:

We administered a very extensive survey and students first had to rate their overall evaluation of the gamified curriculum on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = worst; 5 = neutral; 10 = best), and around 150 students were surveyed from 2 schools: Lausanne Collegiate School and The Oakridge School. Surveys remained anonymous so students felt comfortable giving frank feedback (you can take a look at the entire survey here):

***Note: Graphs below reflect results from the 70 Oakridge students who took the survey. Seth Burgess has provided a link below the graphs which shows the results from his students.

If you look at the survey linked above, you'll notice there were MANY categories that students could rate on a 1 to 5 scale, 1 meaning this was one of the "worst" experiences related to the project and 5 meaning that it was one of the "best." I did a quick data analysis of trends where I saw an overwhelming amount of 5s as well as where I saw an overwhelming amount of 1s. The graphs below represent the categories where there was the most consensus of positive and negative experiences:

Some conclusions/observations:

Choice, Independence, & Motivation: What strikes me immediately about gamified curricula is that students respond most positively to the following: (1) they appreciated choice (2) they felt more motivated and (3) they liked having independence. More than 50 times, students expressed their enthusiastic appreciation for having choice to do the assignments that interested them the most, and I think having this kind of freedom and independence motivated them to level up and to achieve a sense of accomplishment. Watching students work independently on assignments they chose allowed me as teacher to get to know them better, simply put. It's humbling to admit it, but there were some students in my class that I did not know as well as I should at this point in the year. The gamified approach made this apparent and helped us build better relationships because the learning experience was so individualized, forcing the teacher to meet every student where she's at by addressing her specific learning track and keeping her accountable accordingly.

XP Grading, Mastery, & Accomplishment: Students loved the XP grading approach: more than ever, they felt like the grading process was transparent and fair. "I knew exactly what I needed to do to make an A," one student commented on the survey. They also said that grading was not some spectre of stress which haunted them as they strived toward mastery; instead, failure only meant that one had to try again. They really benefited, I think, from the emphasis on mastery because it created an authentic, need-to-know feedback loop that was helpful to the learning process. Many students did express a desire for there to be a public point board if we were to try this approach again. I had shied away from publicly displaying point levels out of concern for embarrassment for those who progressed more slowly. Still divided on that issue...

Feedback & Evaluation: Gamification only works if the feedback loop matches the pace of the students' progress, which presents a challenge to an English/Language Arts teacher. I was overwhelmed by the demand for grading student essays and compositions (something that makes me wonder how one would sustain such an approach for an entire year), BUT the survey responses validated my efforts because students told me that they received more useful and more relevant feedback than that which was provided during previous curricular units. That was really satisfying for me (as well as for the students).

Students did give some "negative" feedback in certain, distinct areas, but the trends here were much more minimal:

Lausanne Student Response Data can be found here.

Some Conclusions/Observations:

The Overwhelming Factor: Students were overwhelmed by the experience. I want to acknowledge the tension/connection between being overwhelmed and having choice, freedom, and independence: it felt overwhelming because students had choice and because pacing was up to them. The curriculum measured/assessed their softer skills of self-management just as much as it addressed the traditional, academic skills of any given English class. Students complained about the time factor, and some of this was due to failing to take advantage of the ice days which disrupted the unit. As a result, there was an expressed concern that quantity was taking precedence over quality, which is why it was important for me to remain vigilant about expectations of mastery (which gets back to why I was overwhelmed...).

Frustration & Confusion: Students did express in considerable volume that they felt higher levels of frustration and confusion at times. Again, I think there's some tension between the frustration factor and the demands for students to achieve mastery within a limited time frame (and to do so according to their self-paced initiative). This was a new experience for them, and never before had soft skills been demanded so directly. Understandably, that was overwhelming. In terms of confusion, I do think some of that was me: this was my first attempt to launch a gamified unit in an English class, and I learned a lot about how to articulate expectations and procedures as clearly and effectively as possible, meaning I'd hope there would be less confusion next time due to better execution.

Analyzing Shakespearean Language & Style: When examining the "negative" graph above, I think it's revealing that most things students perceived as negative were factors related to self-management, working with others, or self-pacing (in other words, "soft skills"), but one area of feedback that related to the harder skills of English was language and style analysis. Students overwhelmingly felt confident about their knowledge of content, structure, theme, and character development, but they consistently voiced concern about the need for more teacher guidance when analyzing Shakespeare's language and style. Rhetorical & style analysis of difficult literature unavoidably requires considerable teacher intervention and direction, and my execution of a student-directed, gamified curriculum allowed for less time for such matters. Is this a problem? I don't think so, for the survey provided me with feedback, which makes clear that style analysis (and related skills) needs to be prioritized in our next unit. Now, if I gamified my whole year's curriculum, I would need to rethink this, BUT I want to point out the obvious: gamification may not address all skills but it does target softer ones that students sometimes never have the opportunity to practice getting better at. However, I do also want to stress here that students wanted more teacher guidance and intervention, meaning there needs to be a balance between student & teacher directedness.

Some thoughts (and concerns) about "the Soft Skills Gap": 

Final project grade distribution ranged from D to A+ (big gap!). I am very convinced that the D students were the ones with the poorest "soft skills" and the As were students with excellent self-management skills. There were some 'A+' students who scored in the B range (demonstrating in my opinion that they were the 'A student' who knows how to function in the traditional schooling system but falls short more readily when self-management is a factor), and there were some 'B students' who scored in the A to A+ range (demonstrating they were students who are motivated when choice, freedom, and pacing were in their hands). Of course, this is a gap I'd like to bridge when executing gamified curricula in the future. The gamified Macbeth unit pointed out for certain students that they have a deficiency when it comes to soft skills, but did those students improve their skills by way of the experience? That is the question...

IV. Nuts & Bolts:
-More on how we used and why - Questions?
-More on how we used blogger and why - Questions?
-More on how Seth used Classcraft and why - Questions?
-Elements of Structural Gamification in our approach:
-Elements of Content Gamification in our approach:
-How we gave Feedback/COLM rubric

V. Group Activity:

-See document attached at bottom of this Google Site page.

-We would like 3 or 4 workshop attendees to bring plans for a three week module you are teaching or plan to teach so that (as a group) we can practice gamifying a module

-Using the template at the bottom of the page (a structural template), your group will create content for three levels of work. Follow these steps:
    1. What is the objective of the module (all content should lead to this goal)
    2. How can the material be divided into three stages of Bloom's Taxonomy?
    3. What assignments fulfill the goals of these three stages, while also allowing for different learning styles and learning tools?
    4. Decide which assignments will be required and which will be optional
    5. Decide on XP points for each assignment based on level of challenge
    6. Consider other structural gamification aspects that would promote motivation, engagement, sense of accomplishment, etc., in your students
    7. Reflect on the possible problems of your design. How should those issues be addressed?

VI. Reflection/Discussion about Overview & Group Activity:

Questions for groups:

1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your gamified 3 week module?

2. What role does technology play in the implementation of your module?

3. Thinking of the SAMR model, do you detect any Modifying or Redefining elements in your projected plan?

4. What are you anxious about? What are you excited about?

5. What will you do tomorrow?

Some Difficult Questions for Discussion:

1. What do you do when a student doesn’t seem to be good at self-management? What if they fall too far behind? I’ve noticed that there is a widening gap between students who excel at self-management and those who do not when one gamifies the curricular approach. What do you do about that gap?

2. How does an English teacher grade efficiently and stay on top of providing a constant feedback loop? In other words, I’ve noticed another widening gap between the overwhelmed teacher and the very motivated student. How do you keep up when considering the grading tasks of an English Lit. teacher?

3. Should there be a public point board to celebrate and announce accomplishment? Or do we risk shaming the students who prove to be less successful?

4. Is it realistic to attempt to gamify an entire year of curricular design and delivery? And should one do so?

VII. Links to More Resources:

Jared Colley,
Oct 6, 2015, 10:31 AM
Jared Colley,
Oct 6, 2015, 10:30 AM