How games can hook students with short attention spansCraig Blewett, University of KwaZulu-Natal and Ebrahim Adam, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Modern human beings have a shorter attention span than goldfish: ours is, on average, below eight seconds while the little fish can focus for nine seconds.
These decreasing attention levels are driven by people’s constant use of technology. One study found that people’s dependence on digital stimulation has become so high that 67% of men and 25% of women would prefer to experience an electric shock rather than doing nothing for 15 minutes.
Children are no different. They occupy a hyper stimulating world and find it difficult to sit through a 40 minute lesson or focus on a single task. Many schools and universities are now turning to the very technology that can be such a distraction. One of the avenues they are exploring is gamification - integrating games and their principles into learning.
Our research has shown that gamification has the potential to boost student learning and motivation.
The game is changing
Gaming has become a huge industry and is now even more valuable than the movie industry. A recent study found that teens spend an average of nine hours each day on their devices, with nearly four of these hours spent playing games.
But schools are starting to realise that merely putting devices in pupils' hands won’t magically restore their attention during lessons. Children need new teaching methods to accompany these new devices. To this end, some schools are turning to gamification.
Gamification normally involves game-like elements such as leaderboards, levels and badges. These are underpinned by storylines and delivered using creative and appealing aesthetics. Leaderboards rank participants, while levels typically give the player additional benefits. Badges are symbols of achievement.
In a sense this is how education has always worked. Individual examinations are challenges, passed across a number of years - or levels. Pupils then earn a certificate, or badge. But a qualification is not a gamified experience because it doesn’t adequately fulfil the key principles of a well designed game: clearly defined goals, a transparent scoring mechanism, frequent feedback, a personal choice of approach and consistent coaching.
Gamification of the classroom
Gamification is slowly proving its classroom mettle. Some research suggests that, if it’s properly applied, gamification can improve attendance, enhance understanding of content, encourage engagement and ultimately improve academic performance.
We decided to integrate gamification into an existing fourth year course at a South African university. Traditionally, the course is delivered to students through social media platforms. This time around we built in an additional game layer. This created a scenario that saw students pursuing a corporate career and competing for executive positions at a large company. Throughout the course, corporate aesthetics and a corporate style of communication and feedback were adopted.
Students were recognised for meeting learning objectives, displaying academic progress, collaborating around activities and socialising with peers. They were awarded badges and points, which opened up opportunities for real-world benefits: marks, privileges like choosing their own project teams, and even letters of recommendation. They constantly competed to appear in the top 10 leaderboard.
Our research found that students were highly motivated by gamification. They worked hard to try and master the content, as well as engaging with their peers about it. Since the game was based on rewarding learning outcomes and sharing their knowledge, students found gamification relevant and beneficial to their learning.
Crashing the game
There were challenges alongside the benefits. For starters, students had to invest more time in the course than they might ordinarily. To stay ahead of the game, they had to keep up with their peers. Those who simply couldn’t keep up fell out of the game, which made it harder to re-engage them. Some students also gave up because they weren’t receiving rewards frequently enough for their liking.
Teachers, too, must invest a lot of time in running the game - never mind the demands of the traditional course. Gamifying a classroom requires a significant investment in time and sometimes money.
We also found that there was a need to ensure a balance between competition - something gamified courses encourage - and helping develop socially cohesive students. This requires care from the teachers, who must ensure that collaborative tasks and social skills like empathy and mutual respect are rewarded within the game.
Despite the challenges, our research suggests that gamification techniques can provide interesting avenues to motivate student learning.
There are several free tools available to help teachers implement gamification in the classroom. Kahoot!, for instance allows teachers to run gamified quizzes where students participate with their own devices and are placed on a leaderboard that the whole classroom can see.
Gamification could, quite literally, be a game changer in the classroom if implemented correctly. As a teacher who recently tried gamification for the first time told one of the authors:
The world is changing - it's getting more exciting, more stimulating, more addictive. However, this comes at a cost. Our attention span, which according to some research is now below that of a goldfish!
One of the ways of trying to recapture our students' attention is to gamify their learning experience. For those of you who were at "@CTIVSIT 2016 - Durban" you heard about the research Ebrahim Adam and myself have been involved in and the impact it has on learning. Below are the slides that discuss our key findings re. gamification and learning.
Hi, my name is Craig and I am a dopamine addict. I'm from a family of addicts. But I guess as you're reading this you're also an addict, but that's OK, because it's time to accept it as part of our modern society.
We have a real problem in our education system today. Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to keep children's attention, with some studies reporting a 42% increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder over the past 8 years. This is resulting in falling grades and increasing dropout rates.
There are three approaches to deal with this rapidly worsening problem:
The solution may however lie in a combination of the second and third approaches - chemical and technological, however not in the chemicals we make, but rather the chemicals our bodies create.
By using technology effectively, dopamine induced learning could not only solve education's problems, but result in highly motivated learners with good memories.
The legal drug
Dopamine is a chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter. It's role is related to reward-motivated behaviour. Rewarding behaviour results in an increase in the level of dopamine in the brain. Quite simply, this chemical gives you a mini high when you do certain things. Every time you read your email or scour the web or read social media posts, you are getting bursts of dopamine.
These little bursts of dopamine make you feel good, and keep you coming back for more. In fact reading this post is probably giving you a dopamine high.
Hugh McGuire, who dedicated his life to books, and started numerous online book repositories, confessed that he just couldn't read a book anymore. However he is hooked to reading emails, checking on Twitter, and scouring social media sites.
Because new information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, and this makes us feel great, which then compels your brain to ask for more dopamine, and hence you must go and find more new information.
Could we use this drug to impact how we teach and learn, and even enable us to read books or other long content pieces?
Dopamined and ready to learn
A study conducted on the impact of dopamine on learning found that mice who were dopamine deficient showed no evidence of learning on a task they were set, compared to those with dopamine.
The study concluded that the
“lack of dopamine results in a performance/motivational decrement that masks their learning competence.”
The key impact of dopamine is on motivation.
If you doubt it's power, then try be away from your mobile phone for a day, or don't look at any social media, news, or emails for a day.
For most of us this is not an easy thing to do. We miss our content. Often we miss it so much we even have to be on our digital devices while we're watching TV. The bottom line is that we are motivated by dopamine to come back again and again.
So how could this natural chemical be used in education?
There are many ways in which technology can be used to motivate learning through dopamine production, such as;
using social media,
creating digital content,
conversation-centric learning, etc.
Take gamification, as an example. Gamification seeks to use elements from games, especially elements that cause games to be so motivating, such as levels, challenges, rewards, etc. to motivate learning.
Gamification makes use of small reward cycles that get learners hooked into the learning experience.
The myth around dopamine is that it is produced when we are rewarded for our actions, like getting a badge for completing something. However this is not true. A challenge produces an achievement which results in pleasure because of dopamine being released.
The result is we seek another challenge, so we can have more achievement, and hence more pleasure/dopamine. It's not simply completing a game that attracts a gamer, but rather the cycle of getting through increasingly difficult levels.
The same applies in learning.
It is not the reward or badge in a gamified courses that is important, but getting through the challenges. Modern education focuses on the reward; the mark. Even gamified courses often do this with their focus on badges.
This is not what generates the high. It is the achievement itself.
High on Learning
There are two essential parts to motivating students to learn in our modern technological age:
“When we compare trials where people are highly curious to know an answer with trials where they are not, and look at the differences in brain activity, it beautifully follows the pathways in the brain that are involved in transmitting dopamine signals,” said Ranganath. “The activity ramps up and the amount it ramps up is highly correlated with how curious they are.”
A combination of novel activities,
with smaller chunking of tasks,
that potentially weave together to unlock stories, or levels, or further information,
will be highly motivating for learners.
As Ranganath concludes, “once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning.”
Maybe it's high time we prescribed dopamine rather than Ritalin to solve our education problems.
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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