NH teachers have ‘gamified’ their classrooms to motivate their students to learn

The kids were really up against the wall this time. After all, the Nasty Extra Crabby Agitated Porcupines were known throughout the kingdom as formidable foes. But they had no choice but to be brave and carry on. So they picked up their pencils and sallied forth.

And just like that the NECAPs had been “gamified.”

"In short the theory is we take what we know about what makes games so engaging and apply that game theory to classrooms," says Larry Graykin, Language Arts teacher at Barrington Middle School, who is better known to his students as the Game Master of the Kingdom of Diddorol.

"All of the content is always the same. I have the same curriculum maps I always did. I have the same information I'm imparting."

Graykin, and later on his Barrington Middle School colleague reading teacher Diane St. Jean, constructed the curriculum so that it operates like a game. The teachers and students create a world where the students become characters, go on explorations, accept challenges and have things to accomplish, all for points that help them rise in level in the game and ultimately translate to a grade.

"It's a dynamic interactive way to do curriculum," says David Sobel, senior faculty member in the Department of Education at Antioch University New England in Keene. "So much of what goes on in the classroom is static and solitary, you know there's the kind of relationship between you and the teacher and not you and everybody else. And there's not a dynamic interactivity.

"And so what they've accomplished and what other people who are trying to do this have accomplished is a much more dynamic interactive system that makes engaging with curriculum much more effective."

And that's important, Sobel said. The more a student engages with the material, the more he or she is motivated to learn the material and the more he or she retains and actually learns it. Sobel points to those who do fantasy football leagues. The result of all the hours of putting together imaginary teams, memorizing stats and analyzing games is a fairly sophisticated understanding of the subject matter. The same is true in a gamified classroom, he said.

Gamified does not mean special computers or technology are needed, or that students spend the class in front of computer monitors. The avatars the kids create are still all paper, pencil and word-processed. The most fundamental difference between a traditional Language Arts class and Didderol — the name of the make-believe Language Arts world — Graykin said, is how kids are assessed and ultimately graded in the class.

"It's like that sort of specific kind of game in which you have to go up against certain challenges and as you are successful you gain more virtual items and you also gain more experience points," also known as "XP" or "Exp", Graykin said. "At the end of the marking period, the experience points accumulated translate into whatever the grade they get."

This is helpful for students in a couple of ways, he said, but the biggest is the focus on the incentive to keep working. For example, Graykin said, in a traditional classroom a student might get three, 100 percent grades in a row, but then fails the fourth test. That student would then have a "C" average.

"It's going to be hard to bring it up," Graykin said. "And if they fail another one, then they have an 'F' and depending on how many more assessments there are, it's going to get it to a point where they cannot pass the class. So it's a disincentive to work."

 Whereas in a gamified classroom, he said, all students start with a zero.

"And the more work and the more dedicated you are, the more you see it go up in levels," he said. "And generally once you earn (the points) they're yours."

The idea being students are no longer punished for what they don't know, but rewarded for the knowledge they have acquired. This also sets up a system where even if a student falls behind, he or she can still come back from the brink.

Further, Graykin makes certain challenges mandatory if it's a concept that's particularly important. If the student doesn't succeed, he or she can take that challenge over and over again until he or she does succeed. In other words, they have to keep working at something until they learn it.

"And all of a sudden they are trying six, seven, eight times," he says. "And they go back and back and they want to. There's actually a gamer term called 'Fiero’…it's that feeling you get when you're finally successful against something. And I've had kids do that, 'yes!' on a test because they know they finally made it through."

Graykin's students track their own progress on a chart, which is based loosely on a pediatric growth chart. He sits down with them every two to three weeks to tell them where they are, what the goal is, and if they work harder they can go higher up in the levels.

And there are many ways to do that. They can accept extra quests, which are typically writing assignments for which the reward for successful completion are, well, more writing assignments.

"And they like that," Graykin said.

But more than just a fun class, the method provides a meaningful framework for the work that the students are doing, Graykin said.

"Within my class, when I introduce an assignment, it's embedded within a storyline," he said."I'm making up a story as I go, often strongly influenced by suggestions from the students. They'll create an entire subplot basically, but, basically it's a reason. The reason you need to take this test is because there is a peril in the kingdom and we need people to go up against this."

St. Jean says this is particularly helpful in her reading class, where her Federation of Inconspicuous Time Travelers reside.

"Students at that age in particular need some sort of a context in order to learn anything," she says. "As adults, we learn things because we want to know something about something. For them, it's very hard for them if as a teacher I say to them,'you are going to need to know plot and setting, you're going to need to know that for high school, or you are going to need to know that for college,' because that is so abstract to them.

"But if they need it in order to gain XP to rise in their levels of the game, that's a concept that they're willing to put out for."

And, Graykin said they really get into it.

"It's a side effect that I hadn't even thought about when I first came up with the idea is that they get so interested in who their avatars are — the fake creations, the character they play in the kingdom — that they actually write the story of this character's life," he said. "And in many cases they make it a fully complex individual and they imagine the adventures they have and it's just another incentive for writing."

Graykin's been doing this for three years and plans to continue; St. Jean as well. If nothing else, St, Jean believes this is giving students a chance to use their imaginations, which is something sorely lacking in the school day, she says.

And Graykin said it helps them learn.

"They're in that intermediate zone; they are looking at adulthood, but they still in their heart of hearts would like to be kids," he said. "And this gives them an excuse when they come in to embrace some of the childlike aspects of their personalities."

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.