5 Ways to Design Effective Rewards for Game-Based Learning

Learning by playing is a fundamental instinct for humans and harnessing this instinct can be very powerful. This principle is the foundation for game-based learning; however, games are often used in shallow ways that act as a mere band-aid attempting to salvage poor student engagement. (For more on general best practices behind game-based learning, check out Edutopia’s terrific blog.)

One important element to leveraging games successfully is determining what to offer as an appropriate classroom reward. Vicki Davis explores this concept in her article 5 Ways to Design Effective Rewards for Game-Based Learning. She makes many great suggestions; one, in particular, deserves closer inspection to understand how to create rewards that work for all learners.

Element #2: The Student Reward Card

The WonderLab Student Appreciation cards recognize behavior that can be overheard. Here’s how:

  • Noticing in-class accomplishment: Which is the first team to finish a challenge?
  • Helping others: Students often tell me how their classmate deserves appreciation.
  • Serving and helping the classroom: This includes handing out folders and facilitating class procedures.
  • Recognizing accomplishment of a goal: If I want students on task faster, everyone who logs in and starts the lesson within one minute of the bell gets a punch.

So far so good—these are great behaviors to reinforce. Students exhibiting the behaviors earn punches on a certificate; when they collect 12 punches, they can redeem the certificate. She then goes on to describe possible rewards.

What are the rewards?

My students design the rewards. I pick a reward time each week. Students caught up on work can redeem the certificate for 20 minutes or less. [emphasis mine]

To me, this suggestion is potentially problematic. Let me explain why. Twenty minutes of free time during the hectic school day is a very motivating reward for students. But this reward can only be redeemed by students who are caught up on their work. Students who are struggling in school or who have learning differences will hardly ever be able to claim this reward because they will need free time to finish their work.

As a dyslexic student, I vividly remember my teachers offering us free time if we got our work done quickly, and I was never able to participate. I recall being one of the last students sitting at my desk toiling away at my math work. It seemed like everyone else was having free time on the classroom rug, and I felt so jealous and embarrassed because everyone could see that I couldn’t get my work done. The trouble is that I had to work so much harder than my peers to get the same work done, but I felt like I was being punished. By the end of the class I was exhausted. I would have loved to have had a short break, too!

Fortunately, Davis offers alternate rewards in the next sentence:

However, not all rewards take class time. RoseMary, an elementary teacher at my school, has “use a funny pen” and “go barefooted” rewards.

I like these suggestions because all students can enjoy them. You could even take them one step further, tailoring rewards to each specific student.

Game-based learning with fun and appropriate rewards can definitely help teachers engage struggling students, but the rewards must be thought out carefully. The perspective of the student who’s not doing well in school or has learning differences is often overlooked. I can tell you, students are hyperaware of how they “rank” against their fellow students and what seems to be fair treatment. Allowing a student who’s not caught up on her work to take a break and to catch her breath during the school day could end up being the most motivating reward of all.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager