Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Shantanu Sinha Headshot

Motivating Students and the Gamification of Learning

Posted: Updated:

When we started building the platform behind the Khan Academy, one of the first things we did was bring in the concept of badges and other game mechanics. The reaction has always been interesting. Most people applaud the effort to make learning engaging and rewarding to young users. Others fear it can lead to perverse incentives or can detract from real learning objectives. As with most things, the issue is not nearly that black and white and is far more nuanced.

There are definitely incorrect ways to bring gaming into education. Some people try to hide learning inside of games, as if we can trick children into accidentally learning something. They create arcade-like action games with fancy graphics, but throw in math problems. This may work for first-graders, but older children are too smart to fall for the ruse. They see it for what it really is -- a lame attempt at a game.

We don't need to hide math problems inside of action games to make learning fun. Learning is naturally fun, and students should want to learn. However, most students seem to steadily lose their natural enthusiasm and curiosity, as they grow older. One of our biggest problems is that our education system has a very poorly designed motivation and incentive system. t just doesn't work for the majority of people.

Currently, our pitch to young students goes something like this: "You should study and work hard because otherwise you will get bad grades. If you get bad grades, you won't get into college or get a good job. You don't want to struggle in 10 years, so go study now."

It's almost like we felt we could scare students into studying by stamping them with bad grades, as if an 'F' is the scarlet letter to college admissions offices. Fear isn't a particularly effective way to motivate someone. Put yourself in the students' shoes.

If you were a struggling student who typically received bad grades, you would think, "Well I'm probably getting a bad grade anyway. I can either try and work really hard, and still get a bad grade. Or I can do nothing and pretend I don't care." It's much easier to choose to not care than to choose to work hard.

Even if you were an exceptional student, this motivation system is lacking. You are probably thinking, "What's the minimum I can do to get an 'A' in this class, and what other extra-curricular activities can I add to my resume that colleges will like?" Sure, you may have straight A's, but you have no incentive to push yourself in the subject matter and explore your limits.

So what better ways are there to motivate people? This is where we can truly learn from the game industry. They have turned motivation and incentive systems into a science.

Being in Silicon Valley, I've had the privilege of meeting some senior leaders in the game industry. I have always been astounded by how well they understand human behavior. One CEO of a game company recently told me, "If we build a game in which someone is demotivated or disengaged for 45 seconds, we know we need to improve." Forty-five seconds! Imagine if we thought this way in education. I think I went years demotivated at school when I was growing up. And, that's likely the norm, not the exception.

The game industry has figured out a slew of techniques that really drive human behavior. The list of effective game mechanics is extensive and I won't go into them here. However, let's think about a few of the implications of applying some of the basic gaming concepts into learning.

Most games are fairly non-judgmental. You feel good when you progress, regardless of how old you are or how long it took you. Imagine if education was the same, and a 9th grader who struggles with fractions wasn't chastised for not understanding algebra. Instead of threatening to fail him, suppose we made him feel proud to actually learn fractions.

Most games give you a sense of immediate success and progress. Instead of waiting for the end of the year to get your grade, imagine if you accumulated a sense of progress with every action you did every single day. Progress shouldn't be measured by cramming the night before and passing the final; it should be measured by your actions and good work habits every single day, and how well you retain and apply your knowledge.

Most games encourage you to push your own personal boundaries. They provide users a sense of improving themselves, and they provide challenges perfectly suited for them. Imagine if students (or even adults) were always encouraged to improve themselves incrementally. You aren't done after you secure an 'A,' that's just one phase of a never-ending journey of learning and discovery.

With any motivation and incentive system, there are obviously risks. It's hard to get the incentives perfect, and when they are off they can amplify the wrong behavior. We've all seen examples of this in our lives -- in the workplace, in politics, in stores with pushy salespeople. Motivation systems with imperfect incentives are all around us.

However, incentives can be tweaked -- games modify every variable (how many points for each quest, how rare each badge is) with astounding precision based on detailed analysis of millions of users' behavior. It's not easy, but good motivation and incentive systems are thoughtful on how they can be misused and constantly use data to adjust their parameters.

In the end, however, most game mechanics are just a way of providing more real-time and detailed feedback to users. What matters most is how the people around the student -- the parents, teachers, and peers -- react to this additional information, and whether they reinforce the right behaviors. Students should feel good about what they accomplish every single day, and be encouraged to overcome their personal challenges. When learning once again becomes a personalized path full of individual triumphs, students will reclaim their natural enthusiasm and passion for learning.