When to use gamification in learning

This is a guest post from Jeff Campbell, Founder and CEO of Motrain - a corporate training engagement (LMS gamification) platform that integrates with Totara Learn - designed to improve course completion rates and help learners develop a stronger personal connection to their organisation.

A few years back I was getting very tired of nagging my students to learn more in the LMS I had spent so much time working on. As the creator of these amazing learning opportunities, I was dismayed at the lack of interest my students had in my creations and I wondered what else I could do to improve their motivation and engagement. 

From my own experience and speaking to my teaching colleagues, it appears that nothing has changed over time in regards to the power of procrastination and the somewhat impersonal nature of online learning.  

One thing that has resonated with me over time (and should for any teacher or instructional designer) is that we are biased in how engaging the content/scenarios are that we create for our learners and expect they will embrace our courses more than what they really do.  

Engaging a disengaged workforce

The reality is there are many reasons as to why a learner may not engage with our courses and be unmotivated to finish them, but there are some strategies that can help nudge learners over their hills of procrastination. 

Considering two-thirds of all employees are disengaged at work and roughly the same percentage of all adults play video games, there is an opportunity to help address disengagement with gamification, which introduces game-like mechanics into a typical non-game context, like adding points, badges, and leaderboards into learning.   

There are purists that think learning and games should not be combined, but there is overwhelming evidence that most of us like games and virtually all of us participate in game-like mechanics found in frequent flyer programmes and loyalty rewards that are designed to shape behaviour.  

(Full disclosure: I’ve never liked the term 'gamification' in learning and much prefer this strategy referred to as 'motivational design', but I’ll let that sit for the time being).

When I looked at these stats on disengagement and the potential benefit of using gamification to shape learning behaviours, I started using existing gamification add-ons to my courses, but I realised they didn’t have the effect I was looking for - though I could see the potential.  

A young female smiling while using the Motrain extension to Totara

Make it meaningful

The problem with traditional gamification approaches tend to be reward fatigue and indifference, where learners get tired of earning the same reward/badge or simply don’t care enough about the rewards to have any meaningful impact on their learning behaviours. 

It’s also time we look at the long-heralded use of motivational badges as these digital stickers are of little to no value among adult learners - after all, what do you do with them and who do you show them to?  

Are learners collecting their badges in a digital portfolio for future reference, are they sharing them on social media, are they being displayed in the office?  

Just like your childhood trophies, medallions, and sticker-books, these badges are often tossed into the 'I’m not sure what to do with this' box and will likely be stuffed in the closet and lost in your next move.  

The traditional gamification approach is where the learner earns points or badges and passes levels in a predictable and systematic way which loses its appeal over time, whereas a more engaging gamification system will add elements of uncertainty, give choice to the learner, and provide personalised and relevant rewards.

Enhance the learning experience

It is crucial the organisation understands who their learners are and tailor the gamification approach to suit their existing interests and motivations. To make the gamification experience in learning even better, the rewards should include mechanisms to enhance learning even further, by offering opportunities or real items that can further the learning or development of the recipient.  

When this is done correctly, there becomes a much larger purpose and importance behind the motivational design which also strengthens the emotional connection the learner has with the organisation.

Another reason to consider adding gamification to your learning program is for the same reason that 'microlearning' has become such a buzzword. It was recognised that learners struggle with completing long training modules and fare much better when breaking training into bite-sized bits.  

People struggle sticking with long-term goals (look no further than the dismal state of retirement planning) since short-term needs and wants are shouting much louder in our modern era of instant gratification. Gamification helps nurture our need for timely feedback and helps celebrate small successes over a longer training programme. 

It is also being used more often for customer training, where there is a large need to improve people’s understanding of products and services because it can be incredibly difficult to get non-employees to complete any kind of training, let alone come back and learn more over time.

Combined with effective instructional design strategies, introducing gamification into your learning programmes can be a powerful way to improve learner motivation and engagement, and enhance the personal connection learners make with your organisation.  

Our Motrain platform is now an approved Totara extension, supported by a number of Totara Partners worldwide, and we are thrilled to offer a novel approach to gamification motivational design. 

Watch: From nagging to nudging: Improve motivation and engagement with your own rewards store (part of our #TotaraIntegrates webinar series).