More than a Mission to Mars
It was a typical Monday morning in high school: dreary-eyed teens shuffling through hallways on their way to their first class looking less than enthused to be participating in the “extraordinary educational experiences” North Kansas City School District promises its students.
But ninth graders in Mr. Jensen’s physics classroom at Winnetonka High School seemed alive with a mission: they were learning how to calculate the density of a substance not to earn a grade, but to win a game. All of the 28 students in room B3 that morning promptly took their seat, opened up notebooks, (perhaps whispered a joke briefly with the person next to them), and looked up at the screen illuminating the day’s lesson, waiting to begin. How, you may ask, is it possible to engage that many students in physics, a subject that many would consider, well, less than intriguing?
Answer: Mr. Jensen has gamified his classroom.
Rather than have students memorize equations to calculate density, mass, and other isolated variables with no connection to their current lives, Mr. Jensen has taken all of the typical curriculum and content that he would normally teach in a year and created an alternate reality: his students are competing in a mission to Mars using layers of game mechanics.
Not only does Mr. Jensen believe this will increase his students’ engagement and success in his classroom, but also in life: “My students play games. By this simple realization, I want them to win at the game I call school.”
The basic structure goes like this: students are still graded and assessed on a normal point system, but they also have the opportunity to earn “XP,” or experience points, that determine their rank in the game. This is important, Jensen says, because students’ grades are not tied to the leader board, visible by the entire class.
Even better is that students have the option of what challenges they can complete to earn their XP points. The more XP a student has, the more perks they earn from the game. Things such as listening to music during work time, forming guilds, or a 50/50 elimination on test questions are all part of these perks, but Jensen believes the leader board is the key component in earning students’ engagement.
Perhaps the most innovative piece of the entire classroom, however, is a concept that many of us take for granted each time our World of Warcraft avatar dies: multiple lives. As Jensen describes it:
“Every game out on the market allows the player to die hundreds if not thousands of times. This same game mechanic needs to be embedded into any education curriculum. If a player is not devastated by failure then he/she will try again, and again, until he/she succeeds.”
To put this theory into practice in his classroom, Mr. Jensen “pools” all of his quizzes: each quiz has 30 questions, but only 10 questions are released at a time to the student. In order to move on from the quiz and “level up” in the game, the student must score 90% or higher. But the student can also retake the quiz as many times as they wish to score this 90%, with new questions being released each time a student (re)takes the quiz.
So far, his hard work to innovate his classroom is paying off. In the first unit test of the year, Jensen compared last year’s test scores to this year’s and noticed that in his regular physics class, first unit test scores rose by 5.76%. The increase was even more remarkable in his honors courses, where the scores rose by 10.04%. But beyond the test data, the gamified curriculum seems to be doing the true job that Jensen set out to do: engage his ninth graders. With only three weeks into the school year, students are even asking Mr. Jensen for extra work on top of the XP challenges and tasks.
“That’s really fascinating to me. They are moving at their own pace and constantly finding success.” Jensen says, “They like the autonomy.”
You can read more about Mr. Jensen’s classroom at his blog, EduBlurbs and learn how you could gamify your own classroom.
Brice Jensen is a ninth grade physics teacher at Winnetonka High School in the North Kansas City School District. He is a believer and advocate that engagement leads to success. In his classroom he is currently working on applying gaming principals to increase student motivation and individualize their learning experiences. Follow his classroom on Twitter: @whsjensen