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Epic Fail or Win? Gamifying Learning in My Classroom

Liz Kolb

Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author
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Game controller attached to a blackboard

Every week for 17 years, I've heard my students ask, "What do I need to do to get an A?" Historically, many have focused on their grade rather than on fundamental skills. My attempt to change this mindset started two years ago when I gamified learning in my classes.

After researching gamification and its potential to help students master skills and processes, I used the 3DGameLab and then Gradecraft to develop and implement game-based learning. In each class, students could choose "quests" that, if completed successfully, earned them badges and experience points. Each open-source badge was developed using so that students could take them into the digital universe (e.g. attach to resumes, ePortfolios, etc.) and -- unlike grades on a transcript -- document skills they've mastered.

Steps to Gamify Learning

1. Use gamification software

Using gamification software alleviates the time it takes to build quests, award points, and track progress. A handful of web-based options are available for K-12 instructors including Gradecraft, 3DGameLab, Classcraft, and TheVirtualLocker. Any of these will streamline game set-up, management, and assessment.

2. Prepare quests

Using a gamifying management system, I modified traditional assignments into quests -- short learning activities that take 10-25 minutes to complete. Thus a task that would take an hour was turned into three mini quests. I recommend having 5-8 quest options open at one time.

3. Be generous with experience points

Associate each quest with a certain number of points relative to its level of difficulty. Gamers get to the top of a leaderboard by earning experience points (XP). Completing easier quests may earn 50,000, while challenging ones can rack up 200,000! Awarding so many points helps students focus away from 100 points = an A and more on skill mastery.

4. Provide choices

Build choice into the gaming structure. Permit students to select the quests they are most interested in pursuing, and allow them to determine the level of challenge in each quest.

3D Gamelab screenshot: A quest on digital footprints.

5. Encourage modding

Provide opportunities for students to pursue a passion not available in the quests by allowing them to create their own quests and badges.

6. Make badges

Integrate badges into the gaming software with online resources like Edmodo, Classbadges, Credly, or Passport, awarding them as skills are mastered and also to keep students engaged.

7. Foster collaboration

Encourage learners to work together on quests, a common practice of gamers who team up in order to achieve an epic win.

8. Create opt-into leaderboards

Set up a leaderboard in the software that students can opt into using anonymous gamer handles.

9. Include Easter eggs

Hide surprises in order to incentivize thoughtful gameplay. I drop in surprise rewards for grit, or award bonus points when students help each other pursue a challenging quest.

10. Redefine failure

In gaming, failure is not a negative, but rather an opportunity to learn from mistakes and correct them. Set the gaming software to allow students to repeat quests without penalty until they have mastered the skill.

11. Reward mastery

In the software settings, require students to demonstrate skill acquisition before they move on to more difficult skills.

Epic Win! What Worked in My Gamified Classrooms?

Personalizing Learning

The software provided large amounts of data on each student, allowing me to identify skills they were working on, how long they spent on a quest, badges earned, and standards met, as well as reading their feedback on each quest. All this data was used to further personalize and scaffold learning paths.

3DGamelab Player Card.


Since each student chooses a gaming handle, I never knew which learner I was assessing and therefore avoided grading bias.


Gaming forced me to give explicit feedback. I felt compelled to respond to each submission quickly, knowing students were diligently checking to see if and how they could level up.


I awarded bonus points for grit skills, such as perseverance. Seeing these skills being awarded points, students were motivated to work on challenging quests and help their classmates.

Epic Fail! What Went Wrong?


Offering too many quests overwhelmed my students. They would log in, see 25 quests, and not know where to begin. Today, I make no more than eight options available at any given time.


Instead of motivating them, reaching the top of an "academic" leaderboard was considered "uncool." Today, I allow students to opt out.

I gamified my classroom in the hopes that students would no longer ask about their grades. Ultimately, students did focus more on academic and grit skills (especially when I began returning quests instead of simply assigning low grades to mediocre submissions). Would I do it again? Absolutely!

Have you gamified your classroom? Please share your lessons learned and best practices in the comments below.

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Patryk Wernicki's picture

Michelle: What do you mean by "every unit"? Every unit (chapter) from the coursebook you use or every 'new' topic you introduce to your students? If the latter, aren't they bored with the PBL?

Brittany Lane's picture

I absolutely love the idea of gamifying my class and tried very hard to do it last year. The problem I ran into was that as an English teacher it became sorta boring to be completely self-paced. I received really authentic work but pretty much found myself sitting at my desk giving students feedback with any real live interaction. I really want to use 3D GameLab again but does anyone have any advice to mix together the normal classroom activities and the self-paced 3D GameLab concept?

Liz Kolb's picture
Liz Kolb
Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author

Hi Brittany
Have you tried looking at Virtual Locker ( The focus is gameful but also on writing (in particular the writing process and editing, rather than the final product). Virtual Locker focuses on collaboration as well. I wonder if you could also build in collaboration points and experiences as part of your XP points?

Miles Harvey's picture


I am running a digital literacy strategies elective next year at my middle school. Needless to say, I am excited. I am looking to create an atmosphere that will be conducive to creating my dissertation research. I love gaming and literacy! We need to chat about the field. I requested to connect on

TomB's picture

I am looking to use gamification in a one-on-one situation to increase motivation in struggling students.

I welcome any suggestions or comments from those who may have used gamification in this setting.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

TomB, I have used the app/website Superbetter with struggling students- it's not content-specific but is focused on wellness, mental health, and resilience. It's awesome! For other classes, I have used a pretty simple point system but with visuals to help students see their growth and progress. One cool way a coworker of mine did this is that the student had a jar of water and each class, if the student earned their points for the day, they would add a drop of food coloring to the water. As the water got more brightly colored the student could see that she was making progress from each week to the next! :)

ninawessen's picture

I think teachers should consider gamifying some of their content. We are moving to an age where technology is prevalent and we, as teachers need to "adapt". However, gamifying every activity is probably not the way to go. Although technology is prevalent, students need to also know how to traditionally learn in a classroom as not everything will involve technology. With that said, teachers should begin moving towards lesson plans that involves some game based learning.

Susan Morris's picture

Is GradeCraft exclusive to teachers at the University of Michigan? It looks awesome.

Liz Kolb's picture
Liz Kolb
Professor in Teacher Education at the University of Michigan, Author

N0, they are making it public for K-16 teachers to use this year. You should be able to contact them via the Gradecraft website.

Susan Morris's picture

I saw the demo account, and I'm really impressed. They're setting me up. Super stoked!! Thank you!

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