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Part IV: Looking at Busy Work

This is the fourth part of an ongoing series on the role of gamification in modern education by Andrew Proto. If you missed the previous articles, catch up with “Part I: the Unique Obstacles Teachers Face“, “Part II:Technology’s Role in a Gamified Classroom“, and “Part III: The Importance of Motivation“.

All too often worksheets are a misused tool, at their worst they support lazy teaching practices and allow teachers the opportunity to give the class an assignment that will keep them quiet while they get a break from teaching. They run the risk of being nothing but “busy work”. At their best and if used properly, worksheets can provide fun activities for students while simultaneously tailoring work to individual ability levels and providing a form of assessment to collect data. Let’s look at what a little extra work and an understanding of game mechanics can do with standard worksheets.

Rarely does every student need the same amount of time to complete an assignment which poses an ever larger problem as classrooms continue to get larger. But don’t give up! Gamification enables some great alternatives to simply telling fast workers to go and read quietly or put their head down.

Here is one low-tech way to implement gamification in the classroom. Divide a set of well thought-out worksheets into four categories (Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies) and place them into envelopes labeled with the subject. Students who finish their work early or who just want an added challenge may go and select an envelope to work on.

Along with the worksheet the envelope will also contain the following items:

  • A Point Card: These points shouldn’t be tied directly to a students grade but instead should be used by students to gain access to special privileges or rewards such as more computer time. The card shows two important bits of information – How many points a student receives for completing a worksheet and how many points they receive for getting the problems on the worksheet correct. By awarding them some points for attempting the worksheet, we’re helping teach them not to be afraid of failure (a mindset found all to often in our schools).
  • A Puzzle Piece: It doesn’t need to be a complex puzzle, possibly just a photo printed out onto card stock that you’ve cut up. The important thing here is that the puzzle pieces are spread across all the subjects so students must either attempt worksheets from various subjects or work with their peers to collectively solve the puzzle.
  • A Sticker: This is purely an extrinsic motivator. Everyone loves stickers.

There are many different motivational strategies at work in this plan and they hopefully create a engaging experience for the students. Most obviously you have the extrinsic motivation of getting a sticker. It’s a bit of silly fun but it’s the sort of thing that can really get students (especially elementary and middle school students) excited. More importantly though, you have the point cards, which allow students to track their progress in a very direct manner throughout the school year. By tying a student’s collected points to more intrinsically motivating rewards such as being named student of the week or being allowed more computer time, you’re fostering a direct relation between the student’s work and their overall accomplishment as a student. The puzzle piece creates a bit of mystery and a collector’s mentality for the student. Ideally the completed puzzle should be something amusing for the student — possible an optical illusion or a funny picture.

However, I believe that the greatest motivator isn’t found in the envelopes; it’s the system as a whole. As I mentioned in the previous installment, educational researcher Jere Brophy outlines specific strategies for increasing student motivation, “If we expect our students to be motivated they must find the work valuable and they must also feel like they have a reasonable chance of succeeding at it.” This plan was designed with those strategies in mind. By allowing students to choose the subject matter of the worksheet instead of assigning them a topic, the teacher is providing them an opportunity for choice, something that is sorely lacking in most assignments.

Also, this is a highly active exercise, students solving puzzles, collecting points, and working collaboratively with their classmates. The entire system is a bit novel, and provides the teacher many opportunities to tie in whatever subject matter is needed. Finally, since students are allowed to pick the subject matter they work on, you increase the odds of them succeeding at a problem since they are working on their strengths. Nothing is more motivating than success.

Gamification is still a new idea, and it’s only by trying new things that we can learn what works and what doesn’t. I have yet to apply these practices in my classroom. If you implement any of these ideas in your school, or if you have tried other gamified lessons, leave me a comment below or tweet me @MisterProto.

More important than any single activity is to keep in mind the principles at work. The methods for gamification that I’ve covered in the past chapters are adaptable to many situations and should help build a highly motivated classroom. In the next installment of The Gamified Classroom we will be looking at a real world example of a teacher who has successfully gamified lessons.

Andrew R. Proto taught middle school science for three years before going to work at Apple as a technology instructor. After teaching there for five years, he realized how much he missed his classroom. He is currently completing a Masters of Science in Early Childhood Education at Metropolitan College of New York. Follow him on Twitter @MisterProto


Creative Commons License
The Gamified Classroom by Andrew R. Proto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License

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