For most of my career, I was considered the cool teacher because my technology classroom featured shiny objects, like robots and 3D printers, that earned me cool points. Teaching was fun because my students were always engaged.
But then six years ago, when I joined a team of “turnaround teachers” at a middle school in Dallas to help improve its historically low standardized test scores, my cool factor plummeted, no matter how many robots I had.
I am a Black woman, and while many of my new students looked like me—72 percent of my school’s students are Black and 24 percent are Hispanic—99 percent of my students are from low-socioeconomic-level households, while I am firmly middle class. That difference made it hard for us to connect. The atmosphere in my classroom was one of mutual frustration, disengagement, and disillusionment.
Teaching became a grind; I considered not returning after one semester. But my dedicated teacher heart still wanted to show my students that they were worth staying for.
I asked myself how I could bring my joyful side, the part that enjoys small-stakes competitions, into my classroom, and how I could do so in a way that my Black and Hispanic middle school students would embrace and might connect all of us.
Starting With an Experiment
I knew about gamification, and I knew it was catching on in education, often through elaborate quests created by teachers. From what I knew, it was like a shiny wrapping paper that could be layered on top of any set of learning objectives to make them more appealing to students.
So I took my first crack at gamification with “Get Money,” which I named after an old-school hip-hop song by the Notorious B.I.G. that I love. Students earned a grade plus “money” (points) if they completed their classwork; the harder the assignment, the more money at stake. They could also earn extra money through bonus challenges. Each student started as an assistant and climbed a leaderboard on the back wall as they accumulated money; their goal was to top the leaderboard as CEO.
It was a complex and time-consuming first attempt, but the results were astonishing: My classroom’s climate transformed from contentious to abuzz with anticipation. Students who previously wouldn’t give me the time of day stopped me in the hallway to ask what our challenge was for the week or to get an update on who was ahead on the leaderboard. All of us were noticeably happier, and classwork productivity increased significantly.
Gamification redeemed that school year—and probably saved my career.
My success with gamification left me with two looming questions: Could I credit it with improving the engagement of my Black and Hispanic middle school students? And could a simpler, less time-consuming version of gamification yield similar results?
I decided to conduct action research to determine why “Get Money” was so successful, reasoning that if I measured the impact of gamification on student engagement, then going forward I could be more intentional in my instruction.
For my classroom-based research, I used a leaderboard again to display points, but I created teams to increase positive peer pressure, so I didn’t have to track money for 200 students but rather for 32 teams. Teams competed to earn the most points in a four-week period, but they only earned points when all members of the team completed their assigned classwork. Grades remained individual.
I also incorporated weekly real-world bonus challenges, like picking up the most plastic food with chopsticks in one minute, setting a table with four places the fastest, or tying a necktie to build excitement, so teams could score extra points.
To establish baseline data, I gave 150 of my seventh- and eighth-grade students the Student Engagement Instrument (SEI) as a pre-test before launching my revised “Get Money” and administered it again as a post-test four weeks later. When I statistically compared the post-test results with the pre-test results, increases in student engagement were statistically significant for all student ethnic groups on all six domains on the test.
But when I looked more closely at the SEI results, I saw that Black students responded more positively to the five questions I posed related to belonging. This statistically significant difference indicated that they felt closer to their peers after the gamification intervention—and backed up the increased engagement I’d observed.
Moreover, compared with my first iteration of “Get Money,” where I tracked every student’s progress, I did less than half the work and still had statistically significant improvements in student engagement across the board.
Research Backs It Up
I set out to find academic research that would explain my results and first landed on self-determination theory, which posits that if students have increased feelings of relatedness at school, then their engagement and motivation theoretically increase as well. That made sense: My Black students were feeling more connected, so therefore they were more engaged.
Then, to understand the racial aspect of what I saw in the classroom with respect to gamification, I explored the relevance of culturally responsive pedagogy; the way I was using gamification, I realized, fit with the theory that engagement increases if teachers honor the cultural backgrounds of their students through “cultural competence”—basically meaning that teachers should align teaching and learning with their students’ community and lived experiences. That led me to think about how gaming habits, particularly those with video gaming, from which classroom gamification (like my leaderboard) often borrow, might differ across cultures and even races.
I also found this research that suggests that “Black teens (83 percent) are more likely to play video games than white teens (71 percent) or Hispanic teens (69 percent)” and that kids from low- and moderate-income families (under $30,000 and $30,000 to $50,000, respectively) are more likely to play video games than kids just a notch higher in the income bracket.
My anecdotal evidence and research evidence suggested that I’d stumbled across the perfect mix of engagement, socio-emotional, and cultural motivators specifically for my Black students to thrive.
Before conducting my own research, I’d thought of gamification as purely extrinsic, but I learned that even the simplest motivators can yield profound results. The experience also made me think about how teachers can be scientists. We all have the power to identify a classroom issue, craft a solution that is authentic, assess the impact, and iterate.