By Cait Etherington March 26, 2018
A few years ago, gamification started to make waves in education, especially online education. In theory, gamification was seen as an effective and fun way to offer intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and as a result, foster increased engagement in online courses. However, to date, empirical evidence supporting gamification’s assumed benefits remains limited and conflicting. At least one recent empirical study carried out at a German university suggests gamification may not have any measurable impact on student performance at all.
“To Game or not Gamify?” was published by Elias Kyewski and Nicole C. Krämer in Computers and Education in early 2018. This study was carried out in the context of a seminar at a German university over one semester. The researchers used the learning management system Moodle. In total, 324 students registered for the online course, and 159 students (105 female, 54 male) participated in at least one survey round.
As the authors explain in their recently published report, “The study employed a between-subjects experimental design in which the students were randomly and automatically divided into three different conditions.” Two conditions were “treatment conditions” and one condition was introduced as a control group. In one condition group, students were able to see their own badges and those of fellow students. In the other group, students were only able to see their own badges. Students in the control group did not receive achievement badges.
Students who could “win” badges could win them for various reasons. For example, a quiz badge was awarded in gold, silver, and bronze to students who answered the highest percentage of questions correctly. However, as the researchers explain, “This badge could change. To illustrate: The quiz badge is awarded to a student who answered all questions correctly in week one and performed better than other students. Therefore, he receives the gold badge. In the following week, the student does not get full marks on the quiz, but other students do. As a consequence, his gold badge changes from gold to silver.” Other badges were given out for completing additional readings and for outstanding participation in the online course.
Since it first emerged, the gamification trend has been based on the premise that rewards, such as virtual badges, fuel students motivation and as a result, enhance learning. As Kyewski and Krämer observe, however, “Although the employment of badges in the field of education has been described in numerous papers, the number of studies that empirically assess the effects of badges is still limited.” Their study sought to fill this gap by offering empirical evidence demonstrating the impact of badges. In the end, their study offered little solid evidence that badges necessarily change students’ motivation or performance.
“It has been argued that badges can increase motivation to participate in courses but can also decrease intrinsic motivation,” explain Kyewski and Krämer, but “Based on the observations and results of our study, the general conclusion is that the way in which we awarded badges did not seem to be influential regarding students’ motivation, activity, and performance.” As they further note, if anything, the results revealed that “badges neither increased nor decreased students’ motivation and activity during the course. They also found that badges did not influence grades or quiz results. And regarding whether to gamify or not to gamify, they conclude, “We can draw the preliminary conclusion that although we were unable to show that badges help to motivate, foster activity and increase learning results, they certainly also do not hinder these processes–especially when participants only see their own badges.”
If, as Kyewski and Krämer’s empirical study suggest, gamification (at least the version of gamification that primarily pivots around the use of virtual badges) neither hinders not supports student performance, is it time to write off gamification as yet another short-lived and largely failed trend in education? While there is certainly no reason to abandon gamification, the limited amount of empirical evidence supporting claims about gamification does appear to suggest that until further studies are carried out, instructional designers and educators may want to think twice before they invest more time and money in the badges game.