Faculty Focus


Adding Game Elements to Your Online Course

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There’s a growing body of evidence that indicates the educational benefits of game-based learning. Although some courses are likely to be more conducive to a game-based approach, it’s helpful to consider how game elements might enhance the learning experience.

In an interview with Online Classroom, Clare Parsons, English lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park, highlighted several game elements and explained how she uses them in her online and blended courses.

Game elements can help make courses “more engaging and immersive,” Parsons says. However, they may be more suited to skills-based rather than content-heavy courses.

Parsons uses game elements in her business writing course and makes this approach explicit in the syllabus:

I am attempting to “gamify” the more traditional blended course. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, gamification is a process whereby a designer tries to apply the aspects of video gaming that make game playing an education in itself. I am not trying to make this course into a video game. My goal is only to apply principles that will make your experience more rewarding. …

Each week you will complete a number of tasks and assignments to familiarize yourself with many different documents and rhetorical strategies. However, since business needs are constantly changing, you will need to be an adaptable writer and a critical reader of all kinds of documents. Ideally, by the end of this course, you will approach each writing task as an exercise in information design and presentation.

Parsons uses the following game elements in this course:

Progressively difficult problems.

Each week, students engage in what Parsons refers to as “challenges,” group-based problem-solving and preliminary writing assignments. Each week’s challenge is more difficult than the previous week’s; however, these are low-stakes assignments that have little effect on students’ grades.

Emphasis on skills development.

Games emphasize rewards for improving one’s skills. “When I talk about this constantly throughout the course, it motivates students. It makes them feel a bit less scared about the big final project,” Parsons says.

Parsons uses a discussion section where students post the results of their challenges and provide feedback to each other. “Rather than having students rip [these assignments] apart, I ask them to analyze one and provide a brief argument about what makes that particular assignment the most successful. There’s usually one group that gets the most kudos. That’s the ‘badge’ or reward that they get beyond the grade,” she says.


“Give people the technology and big questions or problems and ask them to get together and solve; usually they’re pretty good about. It’s a lot more interesting than just answering questions that somebody else told you the answer to,” Parsons says.

A failure-friendly environment.

The first half of Parson’s business writing course involves a simulation. Students devise a business idea for a simulated company and write documents for this fictional company. This enables students to experiment with ideas and fail without any real-world consequences. “It’s like flight school. You start with a flight simulator before they put you in a jet,” Parsons says.

Later in the semester, the focus turns to creating business proposals for actual companies in which students have a stake. They conduct interviews and surveys, set pricing, and write documents that advocate for the business plan.

The use of elements from games has enhanced Parson’s courses, due in large part to the type of courses she teaches and the nature of business. “There aren’t that many rules, and they vary company to company. It’s all strategy, and you’ve got to make it work according to your circumstances. It’s a matter of being able to analyze those circumstances and work within those constraints.”

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.11 (2014): 2,5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.