A Simple Way to Gamify Your Courses for Better Student Engagement

A Simple Way to Gamify Your Courses for Better Student Engagement

Student engagement, performance, and retention in online education are major concerns for higher education administrators. Wake Technical Community College improved all three with its Operation Graduating Gilbert (OGG) course that adopts a story design and gamification format to build a more engaging experience for the learner.

OGG Narrative

The first thing a student notices about the OGG course is a storyline with a multiethnic cast of four college student characters representing the diversity of our school. The characters include: Gilbert, the military veteran; Daphne, the African American culinary student; Maria, the Hispanic business student; and Anish, the math student from Utter Pradesh, India. Each of these characters face a problem that becomes the focus of course assignments during the semester.

The weekly narrative accompanies each textbook chapter, and describes a problem that one of the characters face. Students taking the course will incorporate information from the narrative to solve the problem and complete their weekly homework assignments, allowing students to see how psychology applies to different people in everyday life. For example, the narrative for the first week of the course introduces Gilbert as a psychology student who is worried about finding a position as a research assistant in order to gain experience in the field of psychology. His biggest hurdle is determining which subfield of psychology best suits his interests. He discusses this problem with his friend Daphne, who asks Gilbert to make a list of his research interests. As a homework assignment, students are asked to review Gilbert’s list of research interests and explain in an essay which subfield of psychology Gilbert should choose to study and why he would most enjoy that area of specialization.

The weekly narrative was written intentionally to help students develop a growth mindset, which has been shown to be critical to student success (Dweck, 2006). This is done by having characters model both the challenges and solutions to problems that students might have to face in their own lives. For instance, students do journal activities in which they reflect on their own growth mindset orientation. One requires the students to identify three helpful college resources and write about how the resources will support their success. In another journal, students write a letter of advice to a future student to explain how they overcame a struggle and what was learned from the experience.

Campus resources that are important to student success are incorporated into the storyline of the narrative. For example, in Episode 2, Anish has difficulty learning calculus and his friend, Maria, suggests that he visit the Individualized Learning Center to get some free tutoring and support. In another episode, Daphne and Maria notice Anish is rather emotional and they discuss suggesting that he look on the college’s Student Life web page for a club or activity to participate in for fun. Instructors could incorporate campus resources into their own courses sporadically or through a narrative, as in the OGG course to help students recognize the resources that are available to them.

Social presence was facilitated in OGG through the use of Adobe Connect web-conferencing for regular synchronous interaction, and a group project. Regular office hours and voluntary weekly online seminars are provided to allow students the possibility of social interaction and relationship development with the other members of this class. The group project was designed to further enhance the quality of social interaction by adding the element of collaboration. For the group project, students analyzed Paulie, the one-year-old nephew of Maria, to report about his current level of development. Similarly, a case study could be used for a group project in other courses.

OGG Gamification

Gamification is a good way to build student engagement in a course, and OGG incorporates two gamified elements. One is an individual badging spy game that is laid down on top of the narrative, and the other gamification element is a cooperative superordinate goal that requires class cooperation to help Gilbert graduate.

The individual element is a spy gamification (thus the name Operation Graduating Gilbert) where students participate in a spy adventure embedded on top of this student narrative. In this game, live dramatic videos cast each week’s homework assignment as a secret mission, with the student acting as an operator to solve the week’s mission. Students earn medals (badges) for completing course work, increasing rank as they build up medals. Students begin with the rank of mole, and can earn the rank of director general if they complete all coursework.

A second, innovative gamification element in the OGG course was the inclusion of a ‘superordinate badging system.’ Superordinate goals are group goals that require the cooperation of group members for successful completion, and are helpful for building a sense of community in a group of people. For this gamification element, the students are told at the beginning of the semester that they are responsible for working together as a class to help Gilbert complete 10 steps toward graduation. Each week that 90 percent of the class completes all coursework (assignments, quizzes, discussion posts), Gilbert will take one step toward graduation. The class’ performance, and an update on Gilbert’s progress is then provided to the class in a weekly announcement.

We surveyed students at the end and found that they were interested in the weekly narratives and wanted to see Gilbert graduate. They also enjoyed the gamification element of the exercise and wanted to earn the badges.

Adapting Gilbert

OGG, or a similar design, can easily be adapted to fit your subject matter, as weekly narratives could be written about college students taking courses in any subject. For instance, a similar course for engineering students might focus on the struggles these students have with learning the math of the field and the resources to help them with these struggles.

Badges can provide a gamification element to just about any course. Badges can be earned for completion of assignments or for achieving a specific score on assignments. Instructors can create ranking systems to increase competition and highlight students who earn high ranks. A group goal can also be adapted based on the narrative’s storyline, but the theme of reaching graduation could be applied to all subject areas.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Chris Roddenberry is an associate professor of psychology, Shelley Evans is an instructional designer, and Cynthia Bowers in an instructional technologist at Wake Technical Community College.

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