How To Gamify Your Classroom

In my last post, Following the Oregon Trail: Why Gaming Prevails in Education, I discussed the rationale for including games in pedagogy. Games are engaging, promote retention, and provide students with a fail-safe environment in which to learn and grow, to name a few benefits. It is becoming common knowledge that games are an effective instructional tool. Still, many educators are intimidated. How does one go about incorporating a game into pedagogy? It can seem daunting. In this post, allow me to explore some best practices and share some resources for anyone interested in how to gamify your classroom.

For those wanting to incorporate games or gamification into their classrooms, there are project and design components to consider. For example, when it comes to the development process, one must think through the resources required for game production. Typical roles involved in game development include:

  • Game Designers
  • Programmers
  • Graphic Artists
  • Sound Engineers
  • Copy Editors
  • Project Managers
  • Testers


Game production can be particularly intimidating for educators who are already juggling lesson planning, grading, classroom management, professional development and all the other important responsibilities of teaching. In short, who has time to develop a game?

Luckily, there is a vast toolbox at your disposal; just a quick Google search of “educational games” produces over 180 million hits! There are videos, articles, op-ed pieces and free games galore! But, sifting through the available options can be formidable in its own right. So, where does an interested educator start?

Level 1: Begin at the End

I propose that you start with your end goal in mind; this is true whether you are planning on producing a game yourself, or utilizing an existing game. The concept of beginning at the end correlates to Backward Design, a popular development framework. In this method, you begin the creation of curriculum with the ultimate learning outcomes established, i.e.) what do your students need to know, do or value?

This model, developed by well-known authors and educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, encompasses three steps:

  1. Identify desired results (learning outcomes)
  2. Determine acceptable evidence (means to assess if learning was obtained)
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

The first step could correlate to, for example, a state standard, a demonstrable skill or the production of a specific product. In short, a teacher must answer: what is the desired result of learning the particular topic? Upon making that determination, the teacher must define what will be the proof that the desired learning has occurred. Once the outcomes and the proof have been established, the lessons and activities are designed that lead the student to that end result. This also works for game design.

Level 2: Don’t Forget About the Brain

student with brain

I recommend that you take this process a step further: determine the cognitive process related to the learning outcome. Cognitive process refers to the mental activity associated with a particular learning need. For example, if a student is required to memorize vocabulary terms, then they are activating the cognitive process of remembering.

Many of us are familiar with cognitive processes thanks to Benjamin Bloom and his taxonomy. In 2000, Lori Anderson, a former student of Bloom, revised the taxonomy a bit, which now includes:

  • Creating
  • Evaluating
  • Analyzing
  • Applying
  • Understanding
  • Remembering

After the cognitive process, the knowledge (or content) must be considered. For example, are you focusing on the different branches of the United States government? Or Shakespearean England? Popular culture a la Miley Cyrus? Whatever your subject matter may be, this knowledge will serve as the filler for your educational game.

(See Iowa State University’s interactive representation of the match between cognitive processes and knowledge domains).

Level 3: Choosing a Game

gamestar mechanic

So, how does this relate to educational games? Essentially, knowing the desired learning outcomes and associated cognitive process can help you to decide when to use one type of game over another. Think of it like this: while a trivia game is great for memory recall, it’s not so great for higher-order thinking skills like analysis or evaluation.

In order to help you make these determinations, I created the chart below, which aligns cognitive processes with instructional strategies, game elements and example games. To do this, I started with Karl Kapp’s table from his book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, and revised it to include the levels of cognition.

Make judgments based on criteria and standards Check, Critique, Judge Behavior Modeling, Case studies, Debates, Experiments Multiple decision-making paths, Multiple scenarios, Rating other characters, Reflection Role Plays,Atlantis Remixed

Level 4: Game Development

braingamesOnce you’ve decided which type of game is most effective for your students’ learning needs, you have two options:

  • Utilize an existing game
  • Develop your own

For those of you brave souls who decide to produce your own games, this section is for you.

As alluded to in the introduction, developing a custom game can be a hefty endeavor, however, it can certainly be done, and can actually be a very rewarding experience. Watching your ideas take shape from inception to storyboards to alpha and beta testing is truly incredible.

As such, I pulled together the following list of resources and templates, which can help you in the digital game development process:

Scratch: A project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Scratch is a programming language that allows you to create sharable games and animations.

Game Salad: This site provides a platform used by creators to rapidly design, publish and distribute original games, with no programming skills required!

Watson School of Education at UNCW: Dr. Jeff Ertzberger compiled this robust site that provides a plethora of free- and copyright clear- templates for games using Microsoft Power Point, Excel and Word.

Games in Education Wiki: Adrian Camm, a well-regarded Educator inAustralia, put together this comprehensive resource about gaming, with a great section on authoring tools.

Level 5: Gamification

Image by Sezzles via Flickr Creative Commons

Image by Sezzles via Flickr Creative Commons

You don’t have to build a full gaming environment to benefit from gamification

You may recall from my last post that gamification is a bit different from games. In this model, elements and theories from games are borrowed for use in learning environments. As such, gamification may be slightly easier to implement in a course, simply because you don’t have to develop a full, robust game. However, gamification still requires a thoughtful and creative approach.

For example, badges are now popping up everywhere as an element of gamification. For a free resource on badges, check out Mozilla’s Open Badges, which provides a cool platform for collecting, sharing and displaying badges. However, in order to truly be effective, badges should go beyond serving as trivial rewards. Instead, they should be carefully placed within a learning environment in order to support and promote student engagement, increase motivation and improve recall and application. In sum, gamification should follow a similar process as games: start at the beginning. Identify the purpose and goals of instruction, and then work backwards to identify the most efficacious use of gaming elements.

Likewise, when analyzing your instruction, brainstorm how you can bring other aspects of games into your content. I recommend aiming for narrative elements; this is a common strategy for gamification. In this way, you could include story elements, such as characters, plots, tension, resolution and conclusions into your instruction. Or, you could embed facts to be learned in the context of stories. An additional idea is to start the learning process by providing a challenge to the learner. All of these methods can easily and effectively add gamification to your teaching and learning strategy.

These resources and ideas represent just the tip of the available tools on creating and developing educational games. There is a vast, international network of educators who are banding together and pooling resources to further the study and practice of educational games. Thus, I encourage you to get involved; we can all learn from each other!

See more at: at Pearson Learning Solutions


Author: Dr. Kate Hixson, Curriculum Consultant, Pearson


  1. Otto Khera

    November 8, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Fix the typos.

  2. Shelly Hovis

    November 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Really appreciated the table outlining the levels of Blooms Taxonomy and the various games that compliment each level of learning. This was extermely helpful.