Gamification in Learning Apps

Why Does it Improve Learning?

By Karen L. Mahon

Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts and it’s a big buzzword in education these days. It seems like everywhere we look people are advocating making learning more “game-like” in the hopes that students will like it more and find it more engaging.


This is especially true in digital education with mobile apps. In the early days of adding elements of gaming to apps, short game activities served as rewards for kids who completed the learning portions of the app. Many of us referred to that approach as “chocolate-covered broccoli.” We tried to drive home the point that the developers weren’t making boring learning apps more engaging with little, fun activities that were essentially an add-on and not integrated into the learning itself.

Since then, many developers have become more sophisticated with the gaming features they are embedding in learning apps, presenting educational content in a game-like format. Some of these developers have done an exceptional job of adding gaming methods that reflect the best practices of learning sciences, so not only are their games fun and engaging, but they’re also effective in helping kids acquire, maintain and apply skills. When we look under the hood, what makes gamification so effective in learning apps?

High Rates of Responding

The digital games that really catch on are those that have a lot of interaction. Users are busy and the high rates of interactivity keep them on their toes and engaged. In fact, if your kids play games then you know that sometimes it is impossible to draw their attention away from a really engaging game!

Why is it good for learning? From a learning sciences perspective, high rates of active student responding are important for several reasons: first, increasing active student responding increases the likelihood that students will pay attention and stay on task because they are required to actually do something. The greater the number of chances a student has to respond actively, get feedback and respond again, incorporating that feedback, the faster he or she will achieve mastery performance (Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984). Second, high rates of active student responding gives learners many opportunities to practice the skills we want them to learn. Finally, every active student response is an opportunity for formative assessment. High rates of responding on an ongoing basis mean continuous formative assessment is possible.


You probably have noticed that many digital games start off slowly and then get faster, requiring the user to respond more and more quickly. They give the user a chance to figure out what is required of them without adding the pressure of a time requirement, but, once that player understands the requirements of the game, the game kicks into high gear and the player has to keep up.

Why is it good for learning? In the learning sciences we refer to this combination of accuracy plus rate as “fluency.” Imagine that you’re learning a new language. When talking to someone in your new, second language you need to be accurate and fast. If you’re accurate and slow, it will be difficult to communicate effectively. If you’re fast, but inaccurate it’s even worse. In order for your new language to be a functional and generalizable skill, it needs to be both accurate and fast. Such is the case with academics as well. Fluency is a good indicator of competency.

Adapting Difficulty

The best digital games are those that adapt continuously to the level of the player. The difficulty level as we go must be challenging enough as to not be boring, but not so difficult to frustrate us and make us give up. Adapting levels of difficulty allow the game or app to adjust automatically to the performance capabilities of individual players.

Why is it good for learning?

The easiest way to think about adapting levels of difficulty is as ongoing formative assessment. Formative assessments are regular progress checks toward the student performance goals set out for the curriculum. As we mentioned earlier, every active student response is an opportunity for formative assessment, thus each response provides feedback to the program about which content the student is mastering and which content the student may be misunderstanding (see Hattie, 2009, for a review). With this information the learning app can adjust in real-time to each learner, personalizing the curriculum path so that exactly the right problems in exactly the right sequence are presented to each student. One of the most appealing aspects of technology is the ability to adjust to each learner, moving away from the “one size fits all” of traditional education models.

Mastery-Based Learning

How many of us are guilty of playing games like Candy Crush for hours at a time because we are determined to beat the game? As the game gets harder, the more determined we get to beat it. If you played it then you probably remember talking to friends and comparing which level of the game you had reached. The levels got more and more difficult and you couldn’t go to the next level until you passed the current level. That’s mastery-based learning: the learner is not allowed to move on to the next, more difficult level until mastering the current material.

Why is it good for learning? In the learning sciences, we know that mastery-based learning encourages persistence and leads to greater student achievement. And as far back as 1984, Benjamin Bloom found that “the average student tutored one-to-one using mastery learning techniques performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods” and “the average tutored student was above 98 percent of the students in the control class”. As recently as 2009, in his popular and well-known book, “Visible Learning,” John Hattie reviewed nine meta-analyses examining Mastery-Based Learning. He reported on studies that found Mastery-Based Learning to be one of the most effective teaching strategies, not only positively impacting student achievement and learning outcomes, but also positively impacting students’ attitudes toward course content and instruction.

Simply turning a learning app into a game-like experience does not guarantee that meaningful educational skills will emerge. Even if all of the gamification methods described here are implemented, an app must still have meaningful content, clear learning objectives and performance reports with actionable data, in order for those apps to be strong educational tools for the classroom. When screening apps for your students’ use, look for all of those elements to give your students the best chance at achieving new competencies with apps.

Karen L. Mahon, Ed.D. is the President and Founder of Balefire Labs, a free online review service for digital education products. Balefire Labs offers expert reviews of more than 5,000 PreK-12 products for iOS and Android. Reviews are science-based evaluations of instructional quality and usability.
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Issue 20.1 | Spring 2018

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