Using gamification to help students get caught up in their schoolwork


With COVID-19 and the advent of remote instruction, some students are thriving. But many are not. Helping students be caught up in their schoolwork is always an issue, but particularly when they return to the classroom after being away so long. How can you help your students where they are, while also motivating them to progress as quickly as possible? Gamification of learning material, when done well, can be an effective solution.

Here are the basic qualities of gamification used in video games, which can be applied in the classroom:

  • Present activities as a challenge or quest
  • Reward with badges or points
  • Provide instant feedback
  • Let students embrace failure/risk (if it involves learning how to play)
  • Enable students to track their own progress
  • Support student voice and choice by allowing them to be a co-designer

Following are two instances where gamification improved student progress, along with some cautions.

Gamification with avatars in the in-person classroom

NOTE: This approach can be used remotely if you can devise a way to update student avatars online, and if students have a way to collaborate online.

Kate Fanelli with student avatars

Kate Fanelli was a special ed high school math teacher whose students had severe emotional impairment and were easily distracted. They had a wide variety of ability levels. They avoided doing work, acted out, skipped class, and exhibited “learned helplessness.”

Fanelli, who now works for Alt+Shift, an educational organization that provides assistive technology, wanted to provide self-paced instruction that motivated students to excel. So she gave her class game characteristics such as avatars, leveling up, points, and working at the right level of difficulty.

Fanelli divided the curriculum into levels and wrote each level three parts: 1) the lesson itself, with step-by-step instructions, vocabulary, and 4 to 5 exercises, 2) optional practice problems exactly like the lesson exercises which the student could get help with, and 3) a mastery test which the student must pass while working alone. (Fanelli required a 100 percent score on the mastery test.)

Fanelli gave each student a folder containing the syllabus and a portfolio to track progress. Rather than listening to whole-class lectures, students studied the material independently and asked Fanelli (or each other) questions. The only whole-class lecture was once a week, where Fanelli addressed issues that the entire class seemed to be facing. Students could progress as quickly as they wanted, and if once they finished the entire curriculum they would be done with instruction. This was highly motivating to students.

Each student started with zero points and had to earn points to advance to the next letter grade. Fanelli gave students points for passing each mastery test.

Fanelli also let students have avatars. She laminated faceless stick figures on notecards and sorted them on a bulletin board divided into avatar levels. Points were recorded on the avatars with “dot” stickers.

All students began at “Apprentice” level, and leveled up by earning points for 1) completing a level, for 2) every five days in class the entire time (with no bathroom breaks or counselor visits), and 3) for good performance. As students gained points they were gradually allowed to customize their avators (e.g. hair, face, clothing, even changing to a non-human avatar).

Fanelli said the approach saved her. She didn’t meet a student that wouldn’t participate. Students attended class regularly and got right to work. They no longer feared falling grades. They worked at their own pace and collaborated on everything except the mastery tests. If they were absent, they didn’t miss instruction. Students could see the end-point to the work and knew they could quit when finished. This approach encouraged good social skills, since students offered help to those behind them in the class. Test scores also improved.

On the downside, she had to respond quickly to students, and give instruction repeatedly. Sometimes students waited to get her attention. She warns that she had at most 10 students, and too many more students could be hard to handle. She had no slow days. There was increased record-keeping since she tracked how each student spent time on- and off-task during class; she used a computerized grade book.

Fanelli said this approach can be used for any subject matter, but using good instructional design principles is a must. She advises using clear, explicitly stated objectives; giving students many opportunities for self-assessment and reflection; making connections while tutoring individuals to help them see the big picture; and integrating technology and manipulatives into instruction.

Gamification with story-based role-play (usable remotely)

Elizabeth Snyder

If you have students who love to role-play and you are feeling creative, consider a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) format. Elizabeth Snyder, a school psychologist at Montcalm Area ISD, helped a student with autism become engaged in school by translating school subjects into D&D skills. Here’s how she translated D&D skills in an academic setting:

  • History = History
  • Deciphering Language = English
  • Endurance = Study Skills
  • Craft = Art
  • Arcana = Algebra
  • Alchemy = Earth Science
  • Strength = Guided Academics/Spanish

Each skill level is 100 points (level zero = 0-99 points; Level 1 is 100-199 points, etc). Snyder gave 4 points for warm-ups, 10 points for homework, and 75 points for summative tests. To earn points, the student must pass the assignment with at least 60 percent. Bonus points and magical items were awarded based on class participation and engagement. The teachers use PowerSchool to record grades, which Snyder was able to access, so accessing student grades caused teachers no extra work.

Snyder devoted a half-hour every other week to lay out a story and assign points needed to level up and increase power. Each play session had three parts: 1) reviewing points since the last meeting and leveling up as appropriate, 2) reviewing the storyline, and 3) completing new actions and adding to the story.

During play, the student rolled a 20-sided die to take an action. If your students are learning remotely, search on Google for “online 20 sided die roller” or use this link ( The skill level in any given area determines what roll value was needed to be successful — the higher the skill the student achieved, the lower the roll needed.

Here is an example of a story:

“While in the forest, you come across a lost squire, who seems to recognize you and is intent on fighting you.

“Roll dice to see who attacks first.” (student rolls higher)

“What would you like to do?”

(Student decides to attack the squire with smoke. The squire responds with a sword swing that does minimal damage. Student strikes again with smoke, defeating the squire.)

Snyder had to be flexible and creative as a dungeon master. For example, during the fight with the squire, the student assumed he had killed the squire and felt very badly about it. So Snyder invented a resurrection potion that the student could earn to bring the squire back to life.

Snyder also integrated curriculum content into the stories. For example, the student might have to decipher the lyrics to a song in Spanish, navigate using a map of ancient China, or calculate the length of a congruent triangle to determine when the enemy will arrive at his castle.

The game was not a cure-all. The student still struggled with some subjects. But he said school is “finally fun”, his behavior problems disappeared, and he greeted people at school, which he never did before.

If you would like to find out more tips from Snyder, see this PDF of Snyder’s presentation on the game, and this game manual she wrote for students to read. You can also email Snyder at

Gamification cautions

The competitive nature of gamification can deter student participation, especially when results are broadcast.

You may have heard of Classcraft, which allows students to adopt a Dungeons & Dragons-type persona online. Students level up based on good behavior and completed work, and you could use this tool in a Dungeons & Dragons scenario. But it should be customized to avoid punitive results.

A review of Classcraft praises Classcraft for integrating easily with normal classroom activities and teaching social skills. But the review notes that:

“Some of the preset powers and events may cause strife, especially among younger students. Make sure to take a close look and customize them as necessary. For example, optional random events include suggestions such as “The player with the least HP loses 15 HP.” Although that may work well in some classrooms, students who are struggling may feel targeted for being the “weakest” players, especially if the game is broadcast, as suggested, via interactive whiteboard or screen.”


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