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Using Gamification to Overcome Anxiety and Encourage Play in the Graduate Classroom

By Lindsay Kistler Mattock / July 2023

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Gamification strategies have become a popular means for increasing engagement across a variety of contexts: social media platforms, marketing techniques, corporate settings, and classrooms. In the classroom, learning management systems have embraced elements of gaming, incorporating badges and integration of tools, such as H5P , that allow instructors to test student knowledge through crossword puzzles and matching games rather than traditional quizzes. While some have dismissed gamification as a passing fad in educational contexts [1], gamified elements can increase student engagement, empower students to take ownership of their learning experience, and overcome their anxieties when faced with challenging topics.

Despite the prolific use of tablets, computers, and smartphones, graduate students report high levels of anxiety related to a perceived lack of technological skills, dispelling the myth of the digital native [2, 3, 4]. These technologies are understood as black boxes: Computers receive input from users, but the processes that generate what users see on the screen are a mystery to most. However, students across many fields of study must engage with digital tools and methodologies to be successful in their professional practice.

Many Master of Library Science programs include technology-focused classes and coursework to meet the demands of the field [5, 6]. Students enrolled in the Introduction to Computing course at the University of Iowa consistently reported high levels of anxiety related to their perceived lack of technological skills [7]. As an instructor, I was challenged with the task of introducing a broad range of digital tools to students who were intimidated by unfamiliar technology and anxious about the demands of the graduate classroom.

In an attempt to relieve the students' anxiety around the subject matter, the Computing Foundations course was initially designed around a series of project-based assignments. Grading was focused on the process rather than the end-product. By removing the students' focus on reporting the "right" answer, the pedagogy emphasized reflection on the engagement with the technologies covered in the course. Students completed guided exercises framed around a generic suite of technologies that they would encounter across the curriculum and in their future professional practice. The projects increased in complexity over the course of the semester, beginning with building simple websites with HTML, moving toward encoding descriptive metadata with XML, learning to write simple scripts with the Python programming language, and ending with configuring their computers as web servers to host WordPress. Students engage with these technologies daily through their use of web-based resources, the projects demystified the tools, demonstrating how websites and computer programs are constructed while encouraging students to reflect on their learning experience. In doing so, students developed methods for navigating new and unfamiliar tools rather than building expertise with specific platforms or technologies. This strategy prepares students to work with commonly used tools in their professional practice, while ensuring they have the skills to adapt and modify practices and workflows to new tools in the future.

The course demonstrated high levels of success, but I found students did not feel confident or encouraged to experiment, play, and collaborate with others as they explored the lessons. Students rarely deviated from the provided instructions and often panicked if they encountered a challenge that was not addressed in the project script. Consulting with an instructional designer as I prepared for a new semester, the course was reframed to include elements of gamification that invited students to look at their learning experience differently and embrace the challenge of the course.

Setting the Stage

Designed around a set of projects using the RaspberryPi computer (RPi), the classroom utilized a flipped model, where students were asked to complete readings and watch lecture materials before attending class. During each class session, students completed guided projects using the lightweight and inexpensive computer designed to support digital literacy and DIY projects. The RPi was the "textbook" for the course, requiring students to work with a novel and unfamiliar piece of technology from the start of the term. Students completed six projects over the course of the semester, beginning by installing the Raspbian Operating System on the RPi computer. The projects increased in complexity as students constructed webpages with HTML, created metadata schemas with XML, learned to query XML with Python, and finally configured their RPis as web servers to host websites on WordPress. The projects were designed similarly to lessons on sites like the Programming Historian and the World Wide Web Consortium's W3Schools. The self-guided and self-paced instructions first asked students to replicate a provided example before demonstrating their knowledge independently. In addition, the projects included embedded reflection questions that asked students to stop and draw connections between the reading and lecture materials that explored the history of computing, applications across the library and information science fields, and the values and ethics embedded in digital tools.

While course assessment was grounded in process rather than product, students remained hyper-focused on where projects went wrong rather than focusing on how those "failures" were opportunities to learn. Despite being encouraged to collaborate, the classroom was quiet, and students often apologized for speaking up or asking questions. As an instructor, I included language in the syllabus, welcoming students to experiment:

To be successful in this course, you must: tinker, play, build, make, tweak, experiment, hack, and break things. You will push your boundaries and the boundaries of the technology, ask many questions of yourself and your peers, be confused and/or frustrated and/or lost, dig yourself out of those traps and think deeply about the digital tools that you will engage with during your time here at SLIS,[a] in your professional posts, and in all other aspects of your life. This course is not about gaining mastery of particular tools, but rather building the skills and experience that will allow you to be comfortable and confident engaging with and evaluating new and familiar technologies.

I demonstrated the limitations of my own knowledge by searching for answers to questions or illustrating where I, too, "failed," hoping my vulnerability would encourage students to embrace the challenge of the assignments. Each week I walked through a silent classroom as students reluctantly whispered questions and audibly sighed in frustration when they hit an unexpected roadblock.

Ultimately, students were highly successful in the course and reported increased confidence in their abilities to work with new tools. Many even decided to adopt the RPi in their professional practice, adding the computers to library makerspaces or adopting the RPi as part of their coding exercises in the classroom. As an instructor, I was pleased with the success of the course, but I wanted more for the students. I wanted them to recognize where these pain points throughout the semester were opportunities. I wanted to invite them to work together and discover the joy of learning something new. I wanted students to approach the course in the same way they would a game.

Gamifying the Course, the Octalysis Framework

Reflecting on the classroom environment, I consulted with instructional designers on campus who suggested adding gamified elements to the course may help to shift the classroom culture and encourage students to accept the invitation to tinker and play. The instructional designers suggested Yu-Kai Chou's "actionable gamification" as a means for exploring how game mechanics might be introduced into the course. Chou defines gamification as "the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities" [8]. His Octalysis framework examines the eight "core drives" of gaming that shape human behavior. These include both negative and positive motivators: meaning making, empowerment, social influence, unpredictability, avoidance, scarcity, ownership, and accomplishment. The framework (represented along the eight faces of an octagon) is further divided into "white hat" and black hat elements. "White hat gamification" emphasizes the positive drives of meaning making, accomplishment, and empowerment, while "black hat gamification" is influenced by the negative drivers of scarcity, unpredictability, and avoidance. Ownership and social influence are situated along the center. Many "black hat" elements were already embedded in the classroom. Due dates, feelings of failure, the challenge of the unknown, and grades align with the negative drives of scarcity and avoidance. Students' lack of familiarity with the RPi and the technologies addressed in the course added the element of unpredictability. Applying Chou's framework, the course redesign would aim to amplify the positive "white hat" drives to overcome these negative motivators.

Some of these "white hat" elements were already extant in the course. Ownership & Possession is one of Chou's core drives that fall along the center of the framework. This drive describes the amount of input players may have in a game. The project-based assignments already provided some sense of ownership. While each project was due on a specific date, students could work at their own pace within the allotted time. Each project also incorporated activities that allowed students to demonstrate what they had learned by tailoring the project to their interests. For example, in the XML project, students were first guided through the basic mechanics of the markup language through short, guided tutorials. At the end of the lesson, students were asked to develop their own schema to describe a small collection of their choice. Students could opt to follow the provided example closely, making small modifications to the tags, or create something completely new. 

The gamified version of the course took this one step further, introducing an assignment menu. To amplify the course's gamified elements, the assignment menu was presented in the form of a character sheet, like those used in role-playing games (RPG). Students earned points in four areas: knowledge, skills, reflection, and collaboration (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Assignment menu.
[click to enlarge]

The activities in the knowledge category included quizzes and other assignments that tested students on the key concepts introduced through the reading and lecture materials. The projects were part of the skills activities, focused on applying knowledge. Reflection included meta-conative activities that required students to reflect on the process of learning and the way in which their attitudes and emotions impacted their work. Finally, collaboration included activities that encourage social interaction among the students.

Each area included required activities, such as attending class, completing the projects, and engaging with the reading and lecture materials. Students could opt out of these assignments, but the points would be deducted from their total score. This negative points system encouraged students to complete these core activities or make up for the points deficit by completing additional activities. Additional assignments were listed in each area to provide students with a sense of choice, with the option to develop their own assignment in each category. 

The RPG-style character sheet also played into aspects of the accomplishment drive. Chou describes this area of the Octalysis framework as "our internal drive for making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually over-coming challenges" [8]. Points, progress bars, and leveling-up are gaming elements that reinforce this drive. While grading often involves points, the final grade for the course was disassociated with the traditional percentages or grade point scale—instead, students "leveled-up" every 100 points they earned. The student's final grade was determined by the level they reached at the end of the term. Students could aim for level 17 and earn an A+ or work toward a B at level 13. With the points system laid out at the beginning of the semester through the character sheet and assignment menu, students could balance their work throughout the term, making up for a low-points-earning week by completing additional activities later. A running tally of points was listed at the top of the score sheet, tracking progress and noting the student's current level as a visual marker of their progress. 

Figure 2. Course map.
[click to enlarge]

The course map (see Figure 2) also added to this sense of accomplishment as the rubber duck (representing rubber duck debugging a think-out-loud protocol for debugging code) moved toward the castle at the end of the map. Inspired by a popular 16-bit game, each new landmass grouped the lessons as a visual representation of how the projects related to one another. The map also represented part of the "story" of the game, playing into Chou's meaning making drive. While the map illustrated the flow of the course narrative as the projects built on one another and increased in complexity, the learning objectives provided a sense of "higher meaning" or the "calling" for students. These learning objectives were already embedded in the course. The class aimed to introduce students to the way that technology is employed across LIS contexts and in culture and society, speaking to the broader learning objectives for the degree and the core competencies in the professional fields of LIS. However, the process of adding gaming elements began to reveal the latent objectives that were not explicitly stated in the syllabus and assignments. The gamified syllabus, assignments, and course materials reminded students they were also reflecting on the development of their personal digital literacy, building confidence and strategies for engaging with new technologies, and examining the connection between emotion and learning. Explicitly stated, these objectives became part of the larger story and framed the way that students understood their progress and development.

While the interventions developed around these core drives focused on individual learners, they also supported the social elements of learning. In past semesters, students relied on me as the expert in the classroom; however, one of the goals of the course was for students to see themselves as experts and feel empowered (another of Chou's white-hat drives) to seek out answers on their own. The elements of mentorship in MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games)—where more experienced players assist those at lower levels, group quests, and social prods—are all aspects of the social influence core drive. In the course points system, students were required to earn a minimum number of points in the collaboration category each week. Part of the points were awarded for attending class, a simple incentive to ensure students would attend class sessions. Additional collaboration points could be earned by asking for help, helping a classmate, or responding to a request on the course discussion board. Each week, students completed a short survey at the end of the class session that included a space to list the classmates they had helped and those that supported them. This simple mechanism, with a low minimum requirement, changed the course dynamic completely. The classroom was alive with chatter as students asked each other questions and worked together to find solutions when tasked with a challenge. Combining aspects of social prods and mentorship, students began to engage and felt empowered to share their expertise, overcome their vulnerabilities, and work together. 

Reflection and Conclusions

As in previous iterations of the course, students reported significantly lower levels of anxiety and more confidence when working to troubleshoot technological issues on their own (see Figure 3). For example, 92% of students in the Fall 2019 class reported they were not at all confident with their work with the command line interface (entering text-based commands to configure their RPi as a web server) at the start of the semester. This project was often one of the most challenging lessons for students, as few had worked with the command line prior to the course. Despite only spending a few weeks on this project, students' perceived confidence shifted dramatically by the end of the term, with only 11% of students reporting no confidence.

Figure 3.Student reported confidence with command line interface.
[click to enlarge]

While the project-based assignments challenged students to work with technologies in new ways, the gamified elements of the updated course enhanced the classroom experience. Students asked questions and supported one another in completing the assignments. Students took ownership of their learning experience and the expertise they developed, allowing them to look beyond being "right" and embrace the culture of play and experimentation that the projects afforded. As one student reflected, "[The course] built my confidence not only in computing, but in trying new things that I didn't think I could do. I can do hard things!" Students were no longer stifled by the challenge and instead reflected on the strategies that they developed to engage with something new: "I feel like I learned new ways to problem solve, and I'm less afraid of trying something, even though it may be wrong." By working together, students also acknowledged the skills they will need to collaborate with others in a professional setting: "It was frustrating at times, but it gave me more empathy when working with folks in a public library tech setting." In addition, students recognized where these skills extended beyond the subject matter for the course: "I feel so accomplished. I honestly feel like I could take any class and pull it off. This was amazing for my confidence."

The gaming elements reinforced already well-respected aspects of course design that encourage students to take ownership of their learning experience. The assignment menu allowed students to pick and choose how they wanted to engage in the course, selecting assignment formats that were most meaningful to them. The RPG-style points system mimicked common elements of contract grading, setting clear expectations on the minimum course requirements and that allowed students to navigate a path through the course and balance the coursework with obligations outside of the classroom. Clearly stated learning objectives provided the guide map for students, further setting expectations and goals for the semester.

While this RPG-stlye course design could easily be expanded to include additional gaming mechanisms such as character classes and badge bonuses, these elements can also be scaled back and integrated into other classroom spaces. Many of the gamified interventions that were most successful added an element of choice for students. Students could choose how and when they wanted to engage within the boundaries of the assignment due dates. In other courses, I've simplified the gamified grading mechanisms used in this example to allow students the same sense of ownership over their learning experience. In discussion board-based courses, I've shifted from setting a requisite number of replies for each discussion board to establishing a broader point goal for students to achieve over the entire term. This shift in the assignment rubric allows students to shape their engagement and choose to spend more time with topics that are more meaningful or interesting. Adding assignment menus provides an additional sense of ownership and accomplishment as students choose project topics and formats that meet personal learning goals and demonstrate mastery of the course learning outcomes. By focusing on the psychological impact and motivating drives of common gaming mechanisms and mapping the gamified elements to the latent course objectives, gaming mechanisms were more than a gimmick or novelty but a means for shifting the culture of the classroom and shaping student engagement with the course material.


[1] Boulet, G. Gamification: The latest buzzword and the next fad. eLearn Magazine (December 2012).

[2] Reid, A. Graduate education and the ethics of the digital humanities. In M. K. Gold ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012.

[3] Bennett, S., Maton, K, and Kervin, L. The "digital natives" debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology 39, 5 (2008), 775–786.

[4] Akçay??r, M., Dündar, H., and Akçay??r, G. What makes you a digital native? Is it enough to be born after 1980? Computers in Human Behavior 60 (2016), 435–440.

[5] Choi, Y. and Rasmussen, E. What qualifications and skills are important for digital librarian positions in academic libraries? A job advertisement analysis. Journal of Academic Librarianship 35, 5, 457–467 (2009).

[6] American Library Association. ALA's Core Competences of Librarianship. 2023.

[7] Mattock, L. K. 2022. Raspberry Pi and rubber ducks: Digital pedagogy and computer anxiety in the LIS classroom. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 63, 2 (2022).

[8] Chou, Y-K. Actionable Gamification: Beyond points, badges, and leaderboards. Octalysis Media, Milpitas, CA, 2017.

About the Author

Lindsay Mattock is an associate professor of library science at East Carolina University. Her research focuses on the archival practices of non-institutional archival spaces, such as media collectives and community archives. Her teaching and research explore the intersections between archival theory, technology, and community.

[a]School of Library and Information Science

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