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Gamifying Courses Guide - Year 3 - Tips, Do's & Don't, Getting Started

Gamifying Courses Guide - Year 3 - Tips, Do's & Don't, Getting Started

Since my previous discussion a year ago was one a lot of people found useful, I thought I'd offer an updated one on what I've learned since now that I've gamified all my classes and have a few more semesters under my belt doing so. 

I've also now done a number of presentations about gamifying at some community colleges and universities and have a better understanding of what people who are interested in it struggle with and how to better help them streamline getting started. This guide should be a lot easier to follow and get started with than the last one. 

I've found one of the biggest challenges with introducing gamification is that a lot of instructors (understandably) feel overwhelmed with where to start.  So I position the following guide as 3 simple rules.  You can use follow any of these individually or use them in tandem.  For those already familiar with these 3 strategies, I also wanted to offer some "best practices" I've learned about how to implement these better over the last couple of years. 

Whether we recognize it or not, the “traditional” classroom is filled with all sorts of gamified rules already.  Here are just a few examples:



In this guide, I want to offer 3 new gamified class rules to consider and walk you through their implementation.


Let's start with the simplest one to understand and some best practices related to it:


Badgr is a great program that is an “App” that integrates into Canvas easily and features achievements and a leaderboard system


The Leaderboard are particular are what make Badgr an effective badge system, in my opinion. Without the leaderboards visible to all students, I don't find badges to be very meaningful.





The most important thing with badge systems is follow-through.  Have new badges students can earn every week and periodically offer small rewards for them (simple verbal acknowledgment and/or a candy bar works). For online courses, a regular weekly/bi-weekly email to the whole class congratulating the top performers and/or offering bonus currency/points.  

If there are not new badges/challenges for students to earn regularly in the course, and there are no acknowledgments of the leader boards regularly in the course, then the badge system is being sent to die.  


The above example is from my current World Literature course.  This is just 3 weeks into the course and you can see the average student has already checked the badge page 11 times because they are actively engaged with it, even though it is completely disconnected from their grade performance in the course. 

Think of badge systems like campfires.  Once you light the fire, you need to keep it well kindled.  When used this way, badge systems can be very effective tools in motivating students. 


This means getting rid of the old rule of “participation” based grades or “bonus points," and turning all these types of grades/assignments into assignments where students earn an in-class currency for them instead.  Students can then choose what advantages to buy with this currency in an in-class shop containing perks/benefits.  

You don't have to start with a big giant list of Side Quests. Just start by taking anything you used to give "automatic 100%" grades for completion/participation or anything you did for extra credit/bonus points and use these as your baseline. If you teach in a classroom, give students chances every day in class with some sort of activity to earn additional currency. From there, you can build out other new assignments to grant them currency gradually.



  1. Create a new grade category in Canvas called “Reward Points” (or something similar) and make it worth 0% of grade. (You can make it "Gold" or "Money" etc.). 

  2. Set any Extra Credit / Participation Grade” type assignments you have to this grade category to easily track earned points. 

  3. Create a new “Reward Shop” Assignment and also make it “Reward Points” as the category.

  4. Inside this new Reward Shop" assignment, make a simple list of rewards or advantages you want to sell students with prices. This is where you record purchases. Put the negative points in this assignment when students want to buy an item.  Make this a running total with list of purchases in the comments section. Students can email you or talk to you in person to buy items. 


For example, if a student came and wanted to purchase the “Skip one homework." that I had priced at 400 Points,  I would open the Reward Shop assignment page and put in -400 as the grade.  If they later bought Homework Bonus points priced at -100, change this -500 total. You will get a notification that you just awarded student “negative” points when they buy items.  This is what you want to happen.


Here is a very simple example of an item shop built as a page in Canvas.  Just a list of perks and the price it cost a student to buy each:

While a simple list of items and prices will suffice, I like to theme my item shop items related to my course.


For my Reality TV gameshow “The Hustle” (English Composition) all items are themed around satirical celebrity references.  Below are some example items from its item shop to give you ideas of the range of perks you can offer.  I have a detailed breakdown of how I set up item shops look and feel here. 


For my World Literature course, items are themed after fantasy genre stylizing:


When you are getting started, a simple single shop assignment page with a table like the first one listed above is all you need. A shop like this takes only minutes to set up.  Just make sure it is easily accessible and visible to your students (link on course homepage).  Later on, you can always dress it up. The above are just some examples of where you can go with it down the line. 


1. Provide a mix of "expensive" coveted rewards and cheaper ones.

This provides students with long term goals to shoot for, and smaller items that just help them boost their grade a little or give them an option if they missed an assignment due date.  As a bonus for you, the big-ticket items mean less fiddly work for you selling them items because a lot of students will focus more on saving up rather than spending their money on small purchases regularly, but they have the safety net if they need it.  

2. Evolve Your Item Shop Based Upon Student Needs.  

Start with a healthy list of perks they can buy.  But if a student comes to you with a problem and your item shop doesn't currently have anything in it to solve it, consider adding it in.  Your students know what incentivizes and what is useful to them better than you do.  The size of my item shop doubled over the course of my first semester gamefiying largely due to realizing there were other perks students wanted or needed. 

3. Don't be afraid to adjust shop prices. (Item shop sales!)

Dealing with a "shop economy" is one of the new challenges presented by this method.  It's ok if you don't have everything priced just right at first.  Maybe you overestimate their enthusiasm for a perk or realized something was too cheap or too expensive.  Stipulate to your students up front that, like a real store, the prices in the item shop may fluctuate.  Don't abuse this to move prices too much, but use it if you need to. 

Related to this, one tactic I've found very useful is Item Shop sales.  If a large number of students did poorly on an assignment or didn't turn something in.  I may give them a chance (especially early in the semester) buy some items on sale.  I'll just send an email out about the shop sale for the next 48 hours and list the sale prices in red on my shop page.  Afterward, prices go back to normal. I try to keep prices rounded to 100 increments to keep it easier to track for me and for students.

4.  Don't give away any perks for free! 

Chances are, you already have some sort of system to curve grades, whether it is dropped assignments, letting them turn in so many late, curving exam grades, choosing or skipping a certain number of exam questions, etc..  The Currency/Item Shop model is designed to replace this model.  Take advantages you used to just give student and now give them the option to purchase them.  Decide on a fair, attainable price and go from there. If you used to let students pick between two essay topics for a take-home exam, now make them write on both with the option of buying their way out of one.  If you used to give them 3 dropped homework grades, let them buy their way out of them or make them up.  This strategy empowers students to choose the rewards that mean the most to them and work towards those earning them rather than them just being given. 

5.  Be somewhat charitable with currency/points, especially early on. 

You want students to invest in this model, and, especially if you are following number 4, you need to make it attainable for them to get the perks that are valuable.  So offer currency frequently for daily in-class participation exercises or easy online extra assignments that only take a few minutes of their time. Once they start acquiring points, that's when students will "Buy in" to the course and the model because they feel invested (literally!). 



One my personal favorite things about this Rule 2 In-Class Currency / Item shop model is that it lets both me and my

students really stretch in terms of the types of "side quest" assignments I can offer them for this currency and also gets rid of some of the filler grades in my course. 

Here are a few examples:

Selfie based side quest assignments are a popular and easy thing to setup.  Just set up a Forum Post asking them to post a picture related to the topic whether it is them accomplishing something, or an image of the world around them.  Students take photos of themselves completing task and these only take seconds to grade.





Riddle Quests/Codes are another technique I use.  Just lock the reward behind an “Access Code” based quiz in Canvas.


Solving the Access Code unlocks the reward. The question page is then just an image and one “multiple choice” question like “Claim your reward” and a single multiple-choice option such as “Yes!”



Another easy type of “side quest” assignment is having students create a meme related to that week’s course material.  Again, it only takes them a few minutes to create and takes seconds to “grade.”  The following example is students who use Joseph Campbell’s ideas that dragons are metaphoric of the things that hold us back in our own lives and explain their own “dragons.”



With this item shop / side quest model, the regular homework can remain how it is.  But these "side" assignments for shop money can be more fun or creative and be easier assignments that take far less time (often literally no time) to grade and give students a way to explore relationships to the course material in more creative and original ways. 


I try to get away from focusing too much on lecture or even class-wide conversations because it only reaches a limited number of students and encourages a lot more passivity among the majority.  What follows are some examples of how you can move beyond the traditional lecture/conversation model.




Requirements: Notecards and music.


  1.       Pass out note cards to everyone in the class and have them write an answer to a question (this can be used for lots of different topics but I typically use it near the beginning of the semester (1st day) as an ice breaker and then again a few other times with other topics (write their thesis, write the best sentence from their essay with vivid details, etc.).


  1.         Have students stand up once they have their answer written.


  1.       Explain the rules to them: when music starts, they are to walk around the room and keep trading note cards until the music stops.


  1.       Play music. Something upbeat and club-like! (I like to use Lady Gaga) 


  1.       When the music stops partner up and compares cards. Rate the cards on a combined score between 1- 7 (7 being best).  So, if one card is given a 4 the other is a 3.  Or one is a 6, the other must be given a 1. Have students write the score on the back of the card.


  1.       Repeat music/trade card 3 x’s. Have students add up the numbers on the back and as if anyone has 21 or above.  If not repeat from step 4 until you have cards over 21


  1.         Have students write the answers that are over 21 on the board and discuss as a class.

I sometimes use this for “best college advice,” best study trick, or “biggest barrier to time management,” thesis development, best descriptive sentence, and other topics.  It is a pretty flexible activity that works for lots of topics.


Requirement:  Dice (I use oversized foam dice I toss to them, but having students come to the front to roll a regular pair works just fine)

Step 1: Create a PowerPoint with some discussion questions on it.

Roll1:  In the reading, the author/character suggests that we should __________ do you agree?  Why or why not?


Roll 2:  On one side ______ on the other side ______ which do you agree with more and why?


Roll 3: Do you think most people would agree with __________ why or why not?


Roll 4:  Ask the Prof any question.


Roll 5:  Choose another student to answer any question of your choice (1 -3)


Roll 6:  1 Bonus point.

This exercise is basically just a more “gamified” way to build a class conversation around a topic. It can be modified however you wish, with some being “re-rolls” or requiring students to do some sort of activity, but the goal is to keep some of the rolls “light” or rewarding while others are designed to engage the material.


I hope those new to gamification or those trying to find solutions to problems they are facing gameifying courses find some of this useful.  Feel free to toss me a message if you have any questions. 

I also now regularly do presentations on this topic covering this material, so feel free to contact me if you or your institution is interested!

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