MathTech: Gamification for special education

Kate Fanelli

Kate Fanelli

by Kate Fanelli

“Gamification” is the application of principles of game design to curriculum delivery and it is how I taught math for the last five years of my classroom career. Gamification is not using games to teach, but rather using elements of games to keep students engaged, motivated, and learning.

I taught high school math in a center-based program for students with severe emotional impairments. Many of my students functioned well below grade level in mathematics due to diverse academic gaps, and were reluctant to learn. Attendance, time on task, learned helplessness, and apathy provided challenges to learning beyond academic content.
Gamification had many positive outcomes, including increased grades, passing rates, and test scores. Gamification also improved students’ desire and ability to work cooperatively, to learn independently, to ask for help when needed, and to stay on task.

Whether you are a general education or special education teacher, a math or other type of teacher, a gamer or a non-gamer (I’m an active non-gamer), here are some steps you can take to gamify your instruction. I offer one caution: gamification is only as good as the instruction being gamified, so continuing your own professional learning around instruction and curriculum will greatly increase your chances of gamifying successfully.

1. Determine the content you want to gamify.

Choose one unit, one project, one learning objective, or one year-long curriculum, whatever material you want to gamify. I suggest starting small. It will give you and your students a chance to learn the new system.

2. Break the content into levels.

For me, I like each level to take about two days, give or take. That means some students will finish in less than one day, another student may take two weeks. But, choose something that you think that a student who attends regularly and makes an effort could accomplish in about two days – a chapter in a book, a lesson from a textbook, some research, a lab. It’s nice if each level involves some new content to learn, some task, and some kind of formative assessment.

3. “Write” each level.

Create or assemble the materials for the level. Each level should include some sort of document or artifact that students can look at and follow along with directions and explanations. My levels contain all necessary information needed to complete the learning, the task, and the formative assessment.

4. Decide how many points each level is worth and how the points will translate into a letter grade.

I find it is easiest to make each level worth the same amount of points and to make the points needed to earn the next highest grade the same.

For example, you could make a level be worth 5 points and require four levels to advance a grade. Students would then need 20 points for a D, 40 for a C, 60 for a B, and 80 for an A, 100 for an A+. Students begin the year, marking period, unit, etc. with zero points. The more levels they complete, the more points they earn, and the higher their grade goes.

5. Put up an avatar board and establish guidelines for avatar creation.

Your avatar board needs to have something that represents each level and a way to stick moveable avatars on it. I used laminated sheets of paper for the levels, laminated avatars made out of notecards, and poster putty.

Have students make their own avatars. In my class, the avatars started out simple, and the more levels students completed, the fancier they could get. Suggestions for embellishing avatars are to make them larger, make them something besides a person, let them use fictional characters, let them add accessories or words or patterns on clothes, etc.

6. Implement the program!

You are now ready to implement your gamified classroom. The essential game design principles for gamification are levels, a cumulative point system, and avatars, but there are countless other principles that can be added depending on how far you want to take things, including theories on motivation, learning, and pedagogy, and also things like badges, power ups, and boss levels.

queso1Online content management systems such as Queso, Gradecraft. Classcraft and 3D GameLab offer teachers who gamify a place to manage and post assignments, grade using a cumulative point systems, and customize their “games” through such things as experience points and quests. classcraft3D-GameLab-LOGO_300.fw_gradecraft_logoI used Queso, which is a free, open source, user-friendly system with a clean interface that melded nicely with what I was trying to accomplish.

My gamified classroom was a work in progress from beginning to end. Content standards change, logistical issues arise, typos are exposed, or I learned something new I wanted to incorporate into the structure. These steps will let you get started on this amazingly simple, low-cost solution to stagnant learning environments and apathetic students.

Have fun playing in your gamified classroom!

Kate Fanelli is the math accessibility specialist for Michigan’s Integrated Mathematics Initiative (Mi)2, a state of Michigan initiative that promotes and supports high quality mathematics education for ALL students. Follow (Mi)2 on Facebook ( or on Twitter (@MI2_Math). Contact Kate at


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