Playing to Learn – Gamification in Maths Class

Game Based Learning or Gamification?

My initial problem with games in my maths class was that it sucks to lose and it also sucks to feel like you are bad at math. So what why would I want to create a scenario that had kids who already felt sucky for being bad at math feel even suckier for losing the game as a direct result? But I didn’t really have a clear idea about what gamification in my class would look like. I was confusing game based learning (GBL) and the gamification of learning (the thing that has ed types going crazy with excitement).

What is your reward system? Public Domain 


GBL is using game playing to learn something. You might play Buzz to learn your multiplication tables or Angry Birds to study the symmetry of parabolas. In both cases you are learning/practising/exploring a learning objective while playing a game. There is a place for this in classrooms. But it isn’t the same as gamifying your classroom.

I was at a terrible maths conference in Denver one year and went to a not-so-terrible session about gamification. The hour long presentation didn’t allow time to really get to gamification in education but it did break down the essential elements of gamification.

My beer drinking has been gamified. Is this a good idea?

My beer drinking has been gamified. Is this a good idea?

Google defines it as “The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.”  Take a look at the apps on your phone – do any of them reel you in with gamification techniques? I use Waze to map my route home everyday so that I get more points, LindkedIn is always offering me something so that I’ll add more info to my account and my biggest weakness is the Untapped app. My beer app that rewards me with badges for seeking out different kinds of beers (I am on an IPA hiatus because I maxed out the badges!)

So if I can be motivated by badges to drink more beer, perhaps I can motivate students to dig into Integration by Parts with a badge too? Hang on. Bad example. Ignore.

It doesn’t matter where you get your definition, gamification is all about digging into that intrinsic competitive spirit to engage students, not just reward them. So you use the principles of game design (rewards, levels, feedback, leaderboards etc) and apply them to a project or a lesson or an entire unit to motivate your students.

I remember thinking (not that long ago) that gamification was a terrible idea and the new edubabble word of the year. I haven’t completely done a 180 on that, but maybe I’ve done a 90? A HS Biology teacher at ASB in India came to a conference and Graded and gave a pretty convincing presentation about what gamification looks like to her. Rory Newcomb is her name (follow her on twitter) and she gave some really solid resources to get started with gamifying your classroom. (She’s very open source with her methods and ideas) What is clear is that this takes a lot of time but the rewards can make it worthwhile.

In the maths classroom we tend to think of Sal Kahn’s approach as it follows the gamification idea well (students are engaged and motivated by the bells and whistles) but I’m not convinced that the learning is great. Not much room for critical thinking or problem solving – Dan Meyer has been ranting about this recently. Our school is currently trialling Mangahigh and many of the students are enjoying the competitiveness of the rewards system. As a teacher I’ve noticed that the site creates an even playing field in the way that it rewards all math abilities equally. My lower level maths students can be earning more rewards than my higher level maths students so there isn’t the positive correlation between math ability and leaderboard position. On the flip side the correlation seems to be between time spent on task and leaderboard position. Even though the lessons are adaptive – they get harder as the students demonstrate mastery – I am not sure that a gamified classroom is designed to encourage students to just spend more time on task. There needs to be a stronger connection between the reward system and the mastery of the learning objectives. And, there is little room for deep problem solving on Manga High so for me it will continue to serve as a tool for practice or review.

Sherry Jones’ slideshare (above) really helped me reflect on the ideas of gamification and GBL and get to the heart of the difference between the two. I think the most difficult task in gamifying your classroom must be in the designing of the game itself. If the story of the game is not fun or interesting will students really be excited to play (and then learn as a result)? I gave up on Foursquare, my LinkedIn mail goes to spam – what can I learn from these app gamifications that are failing to keep me engaged?

I can’t give my students beer badges.

8 comments to “Playing to Learn – Gamification in Maths Class”
8 comments to “Playing to Learn – Gamification in Maths Class”
  1. Haha, nice link to urbandictionary! I do see how using gamification for badges and rewards would cause some tension in the workplace.

    I am also very interested in the beer app. My husband and I often plan trips around breweries and wineries, so it would be nice to get some credit for it! lol

    I was a struggling math students back in the day and I am not a competitive person, so I can imagine that I would have been very nervous at the thought of gamifying math and having my ‘scores’ viewable to other students.

    I agree what part of the difficulty would be in making it exciting for students. I also think that part of the difficulty may be in making it something that goes a bit deeper than just a way to tech basic concepts. How can we use it for problem solving, critical thinking and moving towards innovating? I am not sure, but I think the potential is there.

    • Hey Mary!

      The beer app is so fun! And kind of dangerous too!

      I worry a lot about how the scoring will impact on my struggling students. I guess that all comes down to how you design the game – make it achievable to all.

  2. While I appreciate Sal and the rest of the crew at Khan Academy, I think they are skewing people’s perceptions of gamification and flipped learning. While that is *one* way to do it, it’s not the only way…

    I like your focus on engaging students rather than just rewarding students. I wonder what this can look like in practice in a math class? What’s the motivation for students to “level up” their skills?

    • Hey Clint,

      I am not a big fan of KA, but I also appreciate what they’ve done and how the site can be useful (Sometimes. To some people. To some kids.)

      Trying to motivate the kids to progress through Mangahigh is not easy and it really doesn’t work as a stand alone. We get into competitions against other schools and there is some excitement about playing loads of Mangahigh. But at this point there is no focus on learning as students will choose into easy levels in order to rack up points.

      I used it this semester as a way to have kids review some concepts from 8th grade so that I could pre-assess them at the start of a new unit. It became a drag for all of us so we pulled back and I tried to create different ways to check in on their prior knowledge.

      The work that I’ve seen other teachers do in creating massive gamified units is pretty incredible. I just don’t know if my kids would buy into it.

  3. Hi Ange,

    I had never thought of the negative aspect to rewarding (better) students. I suppose that could happen quite often as slower students see other scores soar, yet their stays similar. It is nice that managehigh adjusts the scores in order to make all on a level playing field. I have used mathletics, and while the students seem very engaged in it, sometimes I question the learning. Especially when the students go through the activities (and live play) at such a level so they can gain more points. I know that I can change the levels of live play, but I would rather a student be involved in maths and gamification, as you mentioned, as the activity itself is an engaging game. Let’s talk about hanoi towers, or the Leap Frog ( ) game where maths is super engaging and a game. I really love using many of the Math300 ( and Maths with Attitude task centres ( which allow students to explore (like a game) a maths problem. Much better than a point based system I believe.

    • Thanks for the links Scott – I’m looking forward to checking them out.

      What I have found with Mangahigh is that the reward system is motivating my weaker students more. They are enjoying the constant positive feedback. My students who generally succeed in maths are not as motivated by the bells and whistles (but they are motivated by challenging tasks so I guess Mangahigh is still working)

      But, it really isn’t meeting all of my learning objectives (mostly with regards to problem solving which my students seem to detest!)

  4. There are some games that don’t work for me. I don’t like things where I have to “shoot” or get the answer fast (unless I’m winning 😉 ) Take a look at this game: It’s called Peace Maker and it’s a game of strategy and thinking. While playing it, you learn the factors that contribute to the Middle East crisis and to conflict & war in general. It’s a great way for students to absorb the facts about history without all the pain of reading text.

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