George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Using Quests in Project-Based Learning

Questlines—learning pathways that are both personalized and differentiated—build choice into any lesson.

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Student choice and voice are components of what the Buck Institute for Education considers the gold standard of a project-based learning unit because giving students choice can pique motivation and engagement.

Student choice also connects to self-determination theory. According to Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, there are three drivers of self-determination: autonomy (the perception of being in control), competence (feeling capable to achieve), and relatedness (social belongingness).

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Choice-based learning is an approach some teachers use to apply self-determination theory to motivate students. More than giving students a menu of assignments to select from, choice-based learning is a flavor of gamification that uses a questline structure to present learning as a series of pathways. (Questlines are common in video games—players unlock parts of a map as they achieve goals or master levels. The map may unlock in nonlinear paths that lead to one or a few end goals.)

Student Choice and Questlines

Basically, questlines are learning pathways that are both personalized and differentiated. In a lesson plan, questlines should resemble an upside-down tree (like a family tree), starting with limited choices which then branch outward with more choices—in other words, choices are scaffolded so you don’t overwhelm your students.

To build questlines, start small. Try a project-based learning lesson that already has a menu of options or choices. For example, if you’re an English language arts teacher, you can create quests themed on genres of fiction or literary devices. Science and math teachers can begin by teaching facts and then branch off to quests in which students can apply what they’ve learned and mastered to real world contexts.

It’s easy to create questlines for students if you already have assignments that break down topics into a menu of choices. For example, you can convert a project-based learning lesson into a mission—perhaps students become time-traveling detectives, miniaturized doctors inside a human body, or Cold War spies.

I adapted a unit designed to teach about life in the Middle Ages in Europe. Because I had already written it as a project-based learning unit, it was simple to adapt to a questline structure. To start, all students were given the same narrative hook. They then watched a content-aligned BrainPOP video and answered basic, fundamental questions. Next, they selected subtopics to explore, ranging from the feudal system to the Crusades to the role of the Church in daily life. Subsequent questline branches then fanned outward (again, like a family tree) as students were given even more choices on what they wanted to learn about and what they wanted to make for their culminating projects. These ranged from building worlds in Minecraft to recording podcasts to writing historical fiction stories.

Tools and Platforms

With choice-based lessons, you can do low-tech planning with Post-it notes, or digital planning using mind-mapping tools such as Popplet or Then branch out with different activities and reflections pertaining to your content. Students should turn in reflections at the end of each quest.

There are quite a few tools and platforms to help teachers create choice-based learning. Educator Enrique Cachafeiro uses hyperlinks (links that jump to different webpages) to create questlines. For instance, he combined ThingLink—which lets users pin links to digital images—with the learning management system Canvas to create assignments such as a biology-themed quest. Cachafeiro has also shared the lessons he has learned about gamification.

There are several learning management systems that include quests. Rezzly (formerly 3D GameLab) was one of the first to include branched quests. It features an area where teachers can share and remix lessons. Deck.Toys, another platform, is highly visual. There are free and paid options, and a gallery of lessons shared.

Classcraft, which has both Google Classroom and Microsoft Office 365 integration, just added quests this past fall. Easy to set up, its quests feature colorful maps that allow teachers to drag and drop pins (a capability similar to the one in Google Maps) as assignments. These pins can then be connected with arrows. Teachers can also share and remix lessons via peer-to-peer links.

A choice-based approach puts learners in the driver’s seat. The structure of branching pathways gives learners a sense of agency or autonomy. What’s more, quests offer a way to gamify learning that avoids many of the extrinsic trappings sometimes associated with gamification, like point-based leaderboards, that can lead to artificial competition.

Interestingly, some students—more than you might think—will binge quests, completing more than the minimum amount of work (perhaps completing more than one questline, for instance). For fast-finishers, consider side quests. In video games, side quests are mini-missions that accrue points but are peripheral to the overall game story.

Giving students choice by adding quests to lessons is a game-like approach intended to add a sense of autonomy to learning.