Can you really gamify learning?

In an older post on learning theories I outlined two different theoretical approaches to learning; behaviourist (conditioning) and cognitivist. In this post, I explore what this might mean in terms of a the types of learning activity which can be ‘gamified’. As a key mechanism of learning, this post concentrates on how gamification tackles a simple activity; asking questions.

Publicly asking questions, whether of staff in a meeting or students in a lecture theatre, is often unsuccessful or embarassing. This is because we culturally associate this activity with roles which lack competence (eg the novice, the child) and because it is also associated with the challenge of a test. Questions can also make assumptions about the sorts of investigation we need or the type of solution we expect.

Because asking questions can be so embarrassing and uncomfortable, a lot of people don’t like to ask – and this can lead to more than ignorance, but to all sorts of problems including errors or malpractice. So many training organisations have turned to gamification in an attempt to solve the problem of awkward asking.

Successful Q&A

Teacher: What is 12 x 167 Watson?!

Pupil 1:  it’s 1,674 sir!

Teacher: Wrong Watson! Hobbes?

Pupil 2:  is it 1,694 sir?

Teacher: Correct! You may have a gold star and 15 house points.

In behaviourism, questioning like the example above is a form of conditioning (this example is a simple version of classical conditioning). In conditioning, correct behaviour is encouraged through positive reinforcement – an immediate reward. In a wide variety of mobile gamification applications, the same principle applies. Rewards (and penalties!) might not even be obvious, as it could be an animation, sound effect or vibration of your device.

In the example above, the questioning clearly establishes a hierarchical relationship, whereby the powerful teacher ‘tests’ the pupil for sanctioned responses. Teaching of this sort, however, is mainly the province of Victorian TV dramas. Even from a behaviourist point of view, this model rewards the ‘correct’ answer, but does not necessarily encourage the appropriate method of arriving at that answer. It therefore operates only as a memorization exercise. While the design of apps offers a more sophisticated form of gamification, many rely on memorisation or the completion of a ‘recipe’ of steps in order to achieve the desired goal.

Cognitivist Questioning

Questioning in a cognitivist approach draws on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Mentioned in the previous post on learning theory, Bloom’s taxonomy outlines a hierarchy of learning, with description or memorisation at the bottom and evaluation or creative knowledge production at the peak. In this hierarchy, the least productive sort of question encourages mimicry, and the most productive sort of question is one that tasks the learner with evaluative problem-solving.

While these type of questions can also be tied to rewards in a behaviourist style, it’s much more difficult to incorporate analysis, synthesis or evaluative problem solving in a gamified application. However, that doesn’t make it impossible.

Excellent examples of gamification focusing on crisis events and applying simulation strategies can engage with a cognitivist approach. These often foreground the open question (explicitly or implicitly): “What are you going to do?”. Utilising dramatic storytelling or simulation, such approaches foreground problem solving through carefully incorporating relevant information in a more subtle way, requiring the player to investigate and analyse the situation.

Using a ‘branching’ story structure, these types of games don’t communicate immediately if you have found the ‘right’ answer. Instead, they put the player in a dramatic story with limited action to produce different outcomes and rely upon observation of details from the narrative to provoke an analytical approach towards player’s response. These approaches also engage empathy and replayability to encourage learning.

So what can be gamified?

These learning principles emphasise that the best type of learning objectives for simple gamification is memorisation; such as the communication of new compliance criteria or familiarisation with a new system or process. The approach is ideal for training large collections of people across the organisation in new information.

More complex problems rely upon dramatisation, storytelling and simulation to facilitate a problem-solving approach. Using these methods it is possible to enhance training and offer a broader range of scenarios for potential application to the learner. However, such approaches can be less effective than simple gamification or face-to-face training and mainly provide an advantage for reaching a wider pool of learners, or as part of a blended learning solution.