How Challenge can Gamify your Classroom and help you Differentiate

Welcome traveler.

Shut the door, it’s cold out there.

Are you ready for a hot mug of gamification theory fun?!

I know you just kind of stumbled in here, but if you’re interested in practical tips for making learning more engaging, more productive and more AWESOME, you might just want to put your feet up and get comfortable.

Tonight we’re going to look at something so simple we know it in our bones. This simple thing, however, is remarkably hard to get right! It also happens to be the key to creating games that are fun as well as learning that is meaningful.

Here it is: For something to be engaging, it has to demand your focus.

That’s it. Simple huh? But the devil is in the details…

How do you make something that demands focus? Famous game designer Sid Meier said that a good game was a series of interesting choices, but what makes a choice interesting?

To make a game or a lesson that demands your students’ focus, it has to be the right level of challenge. If it’s too easy, it’s your students will be bored. If it’s too hard, they’ll give up in frustration. Of course, you know all this, but let me make it crystal clear by an experiment. Look at the 3 text examples below. Which are you most engaged by?

The cat sat on the mat. Bob liked the cat. He called the cat Nat. Bob sat on the mat with Nat…

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua…

Dumbledore turned to Hermione and whispered, “Harry found out about the Horcruxes, so you’ll have to mind wipe him after dinner.”

Ok so hopefully you worked out which example is too easy and too hard! If you’re not mad about cats or Latin, you’ll probably agree with me that the most interesting text is the (still terrible!) Harry Potter fan fiction I whipped up. Of course, this theory of an ideal level of challenge isn’t new. If you’re a bit rusty on the educational theory, some time ago now, educational theorist Vygotsky conceived of the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development. If you look at the three circles below, you’ll notice that the inner ring is effectively BORING and the outer ring is TOO HARD.

As educators, we want to aim for that elusive middle ring where a student feels stretched but not disheartened – a level of challenge that is “just right”.

The Goldilocks effect

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, or what I like to call the Goldilocks effect level of challenge: one that’s “just right”

But of course, there’s a major problem – our students in the class are often at wildly different levels of development! Something that Jimmy finds challenging may be a piece of cake for April.

How do you challenge April at the same time as boost Jimmy? Games have a simple solution to this and it’s called rubber banding, which involves negative feedback. And don’t worry, negative feedback doesn’t have anything to do with being discouraging, it’s actually just a term to describe something that gets harder as it progresses.

A real-world example of negative feedback can be seen in a cycling race. Faster cyclists (at the front) actually have to work much harder because they are breaking the wind. The result is a natural kind of handicapping: the more you win, the harder it is to keep on winning.

Positive feedback, on the other hand, is something that gets easier as it progresses. A real-world example is a snowball. Once it starts rolling down a hill it picks up more snow and more speed, and that just makes it roll even faster – and pick up even more snow and speed…you get the picture.

Can you guess where this is going? You don’t want to make your educational games like a snowball. You don’t want winning students like April to streak ahead, unstoppable. Instead, you want your educational games to be more like a bike race. You want the winning students to face greater headwind as they progress, and you might even build in a mechanism to boost your trailing students so that they can catch up. This is called rubber-banding.

In a game with rubber-banding, the players are grouped together a little more than usual because the game imposes harder challenges for the leaders and boosts those who are trailing…

Why is rubber-banding important?

It’s important because it means that every now and again, Jimmy can beat April. Why does this matter? Because games that you can’t win aren’t fun. They’re like that piece of Latin text above that you didn’t even bother reading. For something to demand your focus, it has to be winnable. If it’s winnable, Jimmy has a reason to play. Instead of checking out because he knows he’s going to lose, Jimmy can actually engage because April’s victory isn’t certain (even if it’s more likely!).

Unfortunately, we often neglect rubber-banding in educational games. In fact, it is astounding how poorly we implement it. Even some of the biggest companies out there still get it wrong. Here’s a concrete example.

Kahoot! is one of the most successful educational games out there. At it’s best, Kahoot is engaging and motivating to students who are evenly matched. But if your classes are like mine, you’ll notice that there are certain students in your class who almost always win at Kahoot, and this is a problem because your other students will eventually give up. The good news is that Kahoot can just apply to the principles of rubber-banding to instantly make a better, more engaging game every time.

How could we apply the principle of rubber-banding to Kahoot? Easy! Simply put the challenges and rewards in the right place. Students who are winning get double negative points for getting a question wrong. On the other hand, students who are losing get some extra points whenever they get a question right. This is an easy fix, but it will mean that students can make genuine comebacks, leaderboards will be more dynamic, and students will share victories more evenly.

So there you go. I hope you enjoyed the drink.

Now get back out there and make something awesome that demands focus. Make something that will challenge your students to be the best they can be!

Discussion question:
What games or challenges demand your focus the most? What is it that makes them so engaging?

Let me know in the comments!


Written by Gilbert Walker

The mastermind behind GameWise

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  1. Nicola Tester

    I had never heard of the term before but ‘light bulb moment’!!
    How perfect is this form of gamification for differentiation?
    I really enjoyed this article and the shift you have created in my teacher brain around using games to meet the needs of all of our students and keep them engaged and challenged at the same time.
    Brilliant article!!! Thanks for writing this one

    • Gilbert Walker

      Thanks Nikki!

      Yea basically it’s a form of multiplayer differentiation! It’s amazing how much more competitive a game can be with a little rubber banding! ?


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