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Three ways games can motivate students to level up

“You must have just left the practice page running for all that time after you finished studying, right?” My high school math teacher smirked at the homework I just handed in.

“No.” I answered honestly. Now we were both looking at proof that I’d been on IXL Learning for a grand total of 5 hours over the weekend.

That was a LONG time.

But I was determined to earn that final challenge ribbon. Even with a few missed answers here and there, by Sunday evening I’d done it.

The greater reward? I aced my final algebra exam and earned the respect of a tough teacher.

Now I can’t share this story without being completely honest: I entered school years before as an intrinsically motivated student who wanted to perform well.

At the same time, I needed to put in extra work to earn my math grades. Here are three ways games can inspire students:

Play just enough to keep them coming back

Learning games supported but didn’t take over my studies. I wasn’t inundated with them for 8 hours at school and then several more hours while I was doing homework.

Celebrating an end-of-unit classroom Kahoot or Jeopardy game left me craving more. Not only did I feel ready for an upcoming test, but couldn’t wait to beat my previous time, high score, or classmate. The feeling never faded because my teachers never overused these learning tools.

Make learning and entertainment mean the same thing

I had CD after CD of her journeys from Fairytopia to the Diamond Castle. I lived almost exclusively in hot pink. Why wouldn’t 10-year-old me want to solve logic puzzles and memory games with Barbie?!

One of my greatest Christmas gifts, a hot pink Barbie B-Book computer, connected one of my entertainment icons with the analytical skills I needed to meet, and in some cases exceed goals for my age.

As I mentioned earlier, I was already committed to my success. I didn’t NEED this computer.

But to a student who feels more disconnected from schoolwho knows? Adding an element of pop culture to learning, like the Barbie B-Book, could be the saving grace that gets them engaged.

Play anytime, anywhere

Competing to earn the fleeting fastest typing score on Mavis Beacon was a race run strictly at school, where my friends and I had access to the software.

But this wasn’t the case for every program we used.

I remember logging onto BrainPop on many weekends using the credentials my school gave me, to keep learning from Tim and Moby. I’d top off each video by testing my knowledge, on just about everything! Lucky for me videos on earthquakes, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you name it, all offered quizzes!


Whether or not games are involved, I can’t promise that five hours of math will always (or ever) fly by.

What is guaranteed right now, is that the use of games in our education feel fewer and farther between as we move through each grade.

With the right checks and balances, it seems more possible than ever for us to use games to motivate all of our students.

There’s a path for this. Educators and other experts are creating it so we can move this forward.

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