“The sun is setting, and the meadow is thick with fog, or smoke; roll a perception check” your friend tells you and others around the table."
If this sounds unfamiliar, then you haven’t spent time as an Elf Ranger, Dwarf Wizard, or Dragonborn Barbarian—i.e., you haven’t played Dungeon and Dragons (DnD). It was one-part my enjoyment of DnD and one-part my continued efforts to increase engagement and motivation in my classes that led me to experiment with gamifying one of my spring classes after reading this piece from my colleague and Sport Psychology Teaching Aficionado Dr. Amber Shipherd. Put briefly, gamifying a class is done by incorporating common elements of gaming such as competition and earning rewards. This approach has been studied in different contexts and has been found to have positive effects on engagement as well as learning. I hope that by adopting gaming elements throughout the course my students will have similar positive outcomes this semester. In the remainder of this post, I will discuss some of the strategies I am utilizing; I will follow-up again at the end of the semester with an update on how things went and lessons for others who might want to experiment with similar approaches.
The course that I am gamifying is an upper-level elective Sport Psychology class for Exercise and Sport Science students. Given that it is my academic discipline, my Sport Psychology course was a natural fit as I’m comfortable with the material and can be more flexible and responsive than other classes that require more content preparation. One of the main gaming elements that I am bringing into the course is the opportunity to gain experience points (XP). Much like in DnD, or many popular video games (e.g., Fortnight, Call of Duty, any of the Lego Series games), students can choose to complete various side-quests (i.e., learning activities) to earn XP that can then be spent on rewards. Examples of side-quests include completing quizzes on assigned readings, interviewing professionals in the field, and utilizing the campus writing center for assignments. The XP earned does not directly impact a student’s grade, and all XP activities are optional. In video games, XP can be spent to unlock, among other things, new abilities and new skins (read: outfits). In my class, XP can be used to skip questions on exams, extra attempts at assignments, or even doughnuts for the class. I have posted a list of XP tasks, potential rewards, and a live “ledger” of students’, and groups' XP on the course’s page on our Learning Management System.
I am incorporating two other gaming elements in the course, competition and choice. Competition will happen via reactive case-studies that groups work on in class throughout the semester. Each group will be role-playing a sport psychology consulting firm; they will face different tasks each week related to the content covered. How they react and handle these tasks will impact the success of their firm, resulting in higher earning potential. Each group’s hourly rate will serve as a measure of their success. Choice is being given to students in multiple ways, pursuing XP as explained above and by offering a menu of potential assignments for each section of the class.
I am optimistic that these strategies will motivate students to engage with the material and lead to an energetic classroom. My optimism is buoyed by the support that self-determination theory lends to many of the gamifying strategies. For those unfamiliar with the theory, one of its main tenants is that as individuals gain competence, autonomy, and relatedness, they become more intrinsically motivated. Incorporating low-risk learning activities will positively impact competence. Providing ample choice to students increases autonomy. And the persistent small group work may result in higher levels of relatedness. I do, however, possess some worry that the attention paid to incentives will drive extrinsic motivation. Either way, if it leads to students who come to class prepared and develop an understanding and/or appreciation of sport psychology, I will consider my efforts well worth it.
Written by Sean Fitzpatrick
Sean is an Assistant Professor in Exercise and Sport Science at Marian University in Fond du Lac, WI. His background is in Sport and Exercise Psychology and he teaches a wide variety of classes including Sociology of Sport, Research Methods, and Exercise Psychology. In one of his current DnD campaigns, he plays E.L., a head-strong half-elf ranger (E.L. as in EL Fudge Cookies; Sean thinks he’s funnier than he actually is).
Contact Sean: Sjfitzpatrick02@marianuniversity.edu