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Boosting student motivation with video games


Video games, suspected by parents everywhere of rotting young brains, are the basis of a new trend in education called “gamification.”

In an interview, Dr. David Thornton of JSU’s MCIS Department said gamification is about “incorporating gaming elements into a non-gaming context,” which happens more often than you’d think.

Dr. Thornton gave the example of “Chore Hero,” an app available for the iPhone that awards points and titles to family members for completing household duties, like washing the dishes, making dinner or doing laundry.

“The social element and competition are gaming qualities that we’re all used to,” says Thornton, who designed gamification blocks for Blackboard with the intention of improving student motivation.

“We want to steal the elements from games that keep players playing and use them to motivate students to keep learning,” he says.

To do that, Thornton developed a “leaderboard” block that instructors can plug into Blackboard in as little as ten seconds. The leaderboard ranks student performance—while the students can’t see names attached to the rankings or grades, they do see where they stack up against their peers.

“What we’re seeing anecdotally is a lot of students, especially the more competitive ones, will see this and they will go to an assignment, work on it for ten minutes and score a few points, then come back to the homepage and see that they’ve moved from rank 9 to rank 7,” says Thornton.

Being able to see their progress results in a “fist pump” moment, says Dr. Thornton, and that makes them want to do more.

Another block Thornton developed, known as the “Quest Path” block, shows a student a map of assignments or projects for an entire course.

“Instead of seeing a syllabus with an outline, they would see a whole learning map of all the concepts they need to cover and how they correspond with each other,” says Thornton.

Assignments given early in the course are already open on the student’s quest to completion, but in order to move on their path, they must unlock other assignments. Each completed assignment earns the student points, which influences their rank on the course leaderboard.

“The long term is that we want to add more gamification blocks,” including an avatar on the Blackboard homepage that students can customize with wearable items earned in courses, says Thornton.

Dr. Thornton’s blocks are currently being used in STU101 courses, as well as his CS230 and game design classes. Eight other universities in places like the United Kingdom and Australia have also shown interest in using the blocks.

“At least hundreds and maybe even a couple thousand students have seen this by now,” he says, not without a little pride.

While Thornton doesn’t know yet if his software has an impact on student performance, he says that “students do seem to attend class more often” if their course has been ‘gamified.’

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