Motivating Motivation in Secondary STEM Classes with Games and Gamification


Students motivation towards STEM subjects, and school in general, begins to dwindle as learning becomes less based upon discovery and exploration and more focussed on the constant testing and rubrics. This can leave students disengaged from science and unmotivated to learn as the processes become repetitive and boring. However, using games and gamification has been found to improve student motivation and engagement by 80% and 87%, respectively (Lynch et. al, 2018). Research also shows that, in some cases, games and gamification can contribute to students developing “practical competencies” (Domínguez et al., 2012), although here we will focus on fostering motivation for students to participate in STEM learning.

Gamification is the idea that elements predominantly present within videogames can integrated into classes as a way of increasing the level of engagement students exhibit. The popular arcade game Pac-Man proved that video games could provide motivation for people to keep coming back and trying again, a trait all teachers want their lessons to have. Bowman (1982) found that Pac-Man provided its players with an extrinsic motivation to keep on playing as it “provides a visual and aural sense of accomplishment” to the players. He put forth that the gaming arcade and the productive learning environment share similar attributes, such as providing participants a clarity of task, an awareness of their role in the environment, and more.

Oftentimes gamification and game-based learning are confused for one another. On the one hand, game-based learning is when video games are employed for use within the classroom for educative purposes. Whereas gamification is the use of game design elements, thinking, and mechanics to enhance non-game activities and motivate participants (Al-Azawi, Al-Faliti, & Al-Blushi, 2016).

Scott Hebert speaks about how teaching needs to change so that students have more ways to learn in the ways that they want to without being constrained by the old ways of teaching that can bog students down (TEDx Talks, 2018).

Concerns arise over the gamification of classes, Lee and Hammer (2011) suggest that gamifying lessons may drain teachers of precious resources, such as time, which could be better spent designing more lessons for future content or providing students with more in depth feedback. They also warn that if games and gamification are implemented in the wrong way then students might only learn when there are extrinsic rewards and prizes promised to them.

Huang and Soman (2013) offer a five-step procedure to help guide teachers through the process of gamifying their lessons, hopefully minimising the amount of a teacher’s resources used. Huang and Soman pose an important question educators ought to answer when designing their lesson “Who is the target audience?”. Each student will be motivated by a different aspect of a gamified experience, Bartle (1996) suggests that generally there are four types of players in games, Achievers, Socialisers, Killers, and Explorers:

  • Achievers are interested in mastering the game. They regard points-gathering and rising in levels as their main goal.
  • Socialisers want to interact with other players. They place the most importance on who they play the game with and the social aspect of the experience.
  • Killers are interested in the competition and conflict within the game. They learn the intricacies of the game so that they can best other players.
  • Explorers enjoy the freedom and openness of a game. They like to discover interesting features and find how far their actions can push the game.

Similarly, Sailer, Hense, Mandl, and Klevers (2013) suggest that from a “trait perspective” there are three major motivational mechanisms that drive different players to complete goals when playing games:

  • Players with a strong achievement motive are likely to be motivated by an emphasis on achievement, success, and progress.
  • Players with a strong affiliation motive are likely to be motivated by an emphasis on membership.
  • Players with a strong power motive are likely to be motivated by an emphasis on status, control, and competition.

These three classes of motivators can be seen to align with the first three types of players listed above respectively, suggested by Bartle, however the motivations for an Explorer is lacking. Nevertheless, we can argue that a student with a strong exploratory motive would be motivated by games that placed an emphasis on discovery and investigation. These observations are simply generalisations and oftentimes players are a mixture of a couple of these player types.

By using these analysis’ as a guide, teachers ought to consider how each of their students are going to be motivated to take part in gamified lessons and whether there will be some students who are left discouraged by certain characteristics of the lesson.

A common approach to gamifying a class is to include a “Point, Badge, Leader board” (PBL) approach (Chandross, 2018) in the lesson where the teacher attributes various amounts of points to students, or the whole class, in response to the completion of tasks. A teacher might use these points as a means of fostering a competitive spirit between students using a leader board that shows students how many points they have compared to the rest of the class. This kind of approach to learning would be best suited to students of the Achiever and Killer player types described by Bartle (1996).

However, teachers must be cautious when implementing a PBL approach as Domínguez et al. (2012) found that some students thought that leader boards did not accurately represent the knowledge each student obtained, while other students felt uneasy due to the competition fostered within the class. Additionally, Hanus and Fox (2014) found that “gamification in the classroom may be a double-edged sword” that generates an intrinsic motivation in students that find the class boring if there are rewards and incentives offered while for students that were already intrinsically motivated to participate in the class, gamification might ruin their engagement as they could see their interests cheapened through the promise of prizes for completing tasks.

There are many tools available to teachers online that can be used for the gamification of the classroom. Here are a few online activities that teachers can employ to introduce games and gamification their classes.

(Kahoot!, 2018)


Kahoot is an online platform for users to create customised quizzes that they can share with others. For teachers, it provides an opportunity to engage students in the content in a fun and competitive manner tailored to each lesson. For free, teachers can sign up and create “True or False” and multiple-choice questions. They then host the quiz live on the internet for students to join using their internet enabled devices (or mobile phones depending on the school’s policy) and answer the questions as quickly as they can against the class. If the teacher (or school) pays for premium Kahoot! then a whole array of tools opens up for the way quizzes can be made and used. Premium Kahoot! accounts can use additional types of questions so that students can experience more variety and the questions can used in more interesting and flexible ways. More importantly, however, premium Kahoot! allows teachers to keep track of student’s achievements whilst they have been using the program. Reports can be generated at the end of each quiz that identify questions that students found difficult so that future learning can be geared towards areas that students need help with rather than wasting time on areas students already know.

Due to its customisability, Kahoot! is flexible enough to be used as a form of diagnostic, formative, or summative assessment for students. For each type of assessment, teachers can simply use questions that suit their needs insofar as questions pertaining to an upcoming topic will make the quiz a diagnostic assessment. Questions about a topic that students are in the midst of studying will make the quiz formative and questions that review a topic students have just completed will have the quiz act as a review or summative assessment.

The nature of Kahoot! quizzes will appeal to Achievers and Killers as there are points gained for answering questions quickly and correctly whilst there is also a running leader board throughout the game that names the top five scorers after each questions, naming the top three at the end on a podium. Socialisers may find value not in the points or winning but in the discussion between players throughout the quiz, however, if a group of Socialisers do not find themselves engaged in the topic or quiz then they might use the quiz as an opportunity for some irrelevant chat amongst themselves. Finally, Explorers may find it difficult to engage in these quizzes since there is not much to discover within quizzes generally so they might find themselves less engaged than other students. However, the teacher might find that many of the students that display the traits of an Explorer also show traits of another player type and so the student still has the potential to engage with the Kahoot!.

(3P Learning, 2019)


Mathletics is an online mathematics website that “is able to flexibly accommodate and variously appeal to teachers, parents and students by affording multiple uses, values and benefits” (Nansen, Chakraborty, Gibbs, Vetere, & MacDougall, 2012). Teachers can access eBooks, videos, courses, and lesson plans that all use the Mathletics website. There are over 1200 practice activities that can be assigned to students that have been aligned with the Australian curriculum. Work completed by the students is automatically marked by the website, so the teacher does not need to worry about marking the whole class on their own. Students that complete activities will be awarded points for their efforts, incentivising the Achiever type players within the class. Socialisers, and perhaps Explorers, will also enjoy designing their own avatar to represent themselves within the Mathletics website. As they move through the activities set by the teacher, students will unlock more options to customise their characters.

Similarly to Kahoot!, Mathletics generates reports for the teacher that tells them if their students are achieving the standards that meet the teachers expectations. If a teacher sees that there are some students that have not achieved a satisfactory score on their Mathletics work, the teacher can reassign the task to those students so that they can have another go at it. These reports can be used as a formative assessment of each students progress through the curriculum instead of giving students tests or requiring they submit their exercise books for the teacher to observe.

Mathletics also has a section called Live Mathletics which has students from around the world face off against each other in a race to see who can solve the most equations before the one-minute timer runs out. Students can see which of their classmates are online and challenge them to a race. This side of Mathletics will strongly appeal to the Achievers and Killers of the class as they strive to gain points and defeat their opponents. Again, Socialisers will find joy in playing against their friends live, whereas Explorers are left with less to motivate their interests.

(Immersed Games, 2019)

Tyto Online

Tyto Online is an open world game where students play as a character that has only just woken up on the alien planet Ovo after evacuating Earth and being frozen for four years. The objective for the students is to learn what they can about their new home so that they might one day save Earth.

There are multiple storylines that the teacher can assign to their students. These storylines are made up of a sequence of quests that are focussed on phenomenon students will investigate that cover several topics such as weather, climate, ecology, and cells. Students will evoke the scientific method when they explore the world, collect evidence, and present their arguments in support of their hypothesis. There is also a sandbox mode that allows students to create their own ecosystem and learn how to make sure that it is balanced.

Tyto online does not contain a leader board for students to compare their results to the rest of the class. This allows students to utilise a “learn-by-failure” technique that eliminates the sense of embarrassment students might feel if they were to instead fail in front of the class, or their peers (Huang & Soman, 2013). This means that student focus can be shifted from the final results of a task, and how well others have done, to the process of learning encouraging students to take risks and make mistakes (Stott & Neustaedter, 2013).

Tyto online is more game-like than the previous resources listed but also maintains the ability for teachers to assign specific quests to students, so teachers can design a lesson plan around the activities in Tyto online or use the game as an engaging , but relevant, form of homework. Tyto online will appeal mostly to students of the Achiever and Explorer player types. Achievers will be able to take pride in their ability to complete quests, level up their character, and unlock items whereas the Explorers are given the opportunity to explore the planet Ovo and discover plants and animals throughout the world. Socialisers may enjoy being able to decorate their avatar and in-game home so they can show off to their friends. The Killers of the class will find their competition in the capture-the-flag mode they can play against other players and perhaps will find competition in comparing their character’s level to the other students. Thus, teachers should be able to find at least a little something for each of their students.

Coolmath Games

Coolmath Games hosts a huge number of online games for students to play. There are several topics to choose from, including numbers, logic, and science, so the website provides a flexible resource for most STEM classes. Students of all player types will find games that interest them and teachers ought to be able to find games that suit the current lesson. However, due to the vast number of games on the website, it is easy for students to get side-tracked so it is best for teachers to keep this up their sleeves to reward students that finish lessons early or choose specific games that fit the lesson to be used at the end of class so there is less time for students to be distracted.

More Games and Tools:

Variant: Limits is an open world game where students will play as Equa and save the Earth using the application of their calculus knowledge. Can be used similarly to Tyto Online.

The Pack features an open world environment and had students allying with creatures, solving puzzles, use algorithms, and collecting seeds so that they could save the failing ecosystem.

Classcraft allows students to create their own characters and work in teams. This game is primarily used as a tool to help teachers manage student behaviour, rewarding students with points in-game for good things they do in class.

Poll Everywhere is not a game per se but it allows the teacher to introduce and test students ideas in a fun interactive manner that can help get students engaged in the lesson.

All in all, games and gamified lessons help students to become more motivated in subjects that they may not typically be engaged with and allows teachers to pursue new methods of assessment and lesson planning. Of course, there are far more resources available than what is listed here but hopefully this has provided some insight and ideas into the use of games and gamification in education.


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