Gerilyn Williams, a middle school math teacher in New Jersey, was looking for ways to make math more fun and engaging for her students. She learned about gamification and tried it out in her classroom in 2017.
Since then, she’s seen huge improvements in student engagement and academic performance compared with previous years.
“I found that this shifted the students’ thinking toward more of a growth mindset,” said Williams, who works for Pinelands Junior High School in Little Egg Harbor, N.J.
In an interview with Education Week, she shares what gamification looks like in her classroom, what the effect on student test scores has been, and what her students think of it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What made you decide to gamify your classroom?
Who doesn’t like games? I started looking into this: How can I make things more fun for my students? There were a couple of things I realized. First of all, game-based learning and gamification are a little different. A lot of times they’re used interchangeably, but in my research, I found that gamification is taking elements of game design and applying them to other areas. So if I can take these techniques and apply them to my classroom to engage students in the learning process, I wondered how effective this would be. “How would it work?” was my big question.
I mean, it’s middle school math—who looks forward to middle school math? But my students do now.
What does gamification look like in your classroom?
I started small. Let me take a very general game—a lot of people have heard of Monopoly, so I called it mathopoly. My goal that year was to have students reflect more on their learning and keep track of their progress. So I made sheets with boxes that look like the squares on the Monopoly board where the properties are, and inside each box was the name of a quiz or assessment that we were taking. The benchmarks were the railroads, and other quizzes and assessments looked like the property squares. I had students write down their grades so they see everything in one spot, and we did reflections based on that.
It evolved from there. I got custom stamps—green ink for houses and red ink for hotels. I had a rubric for how many houses or hotels they get depending on their grade on a particular assessment. When I brought out the stamps, they got excited. If they retook a quiz and got a better score, they couldn’t wait to get those extra houses.
And I’m like, “Oh, wait a minute. How can I take advantage of this and apply it in other areas?” So that year, our end-of-year review was this big mathopoly game. It was basically stations [and] rotations. I put the students into groups and gave them a game token. Each station was a monopoly space with a math activity. Their accuracy on the activity would determine how much Monopoly money I would give them. In true Monopoly form, the top-earning teams got a prize. They loved it. They were engaged in the review.
Now, the entire structure of my classroom has changed a bit. In my classroom, lessons are known as quests. A chapter is a level. A unit is a world. Quizzes are known as boss battles—and yes, you can do a rematch. Extended learning opportunities are side quests.
What has been the effect on student academic performance?
The students performed better on their final exam that [first year I gamified] than in previous years. The data show that this is working. Last year [2022-23], my students’ benchmark scores from September to March increased about 53 percentage points. Our class averages used to fall in a really nice bell curve, where the middle was about a C. My classes’ average grades are now B-minus to B-plus since I’ve been doing gamification. The litmus test is I’ve been using the same paper-based quizzes and assessments [I used before gamification]. I haven’t changed anything about the assessments. They’re still the same. The bottom line is it works.
Do you have a specific student success story that you can share?
There was one in particular that I have in mind. She had never been really good at math. She absolutely blossomed and thrived, and by the end of the year, she was an overachiever. She absolutely loved the strategy. She was fully engaged and found math to be easier by the end of the year because of the way it was structured and she was able to run at her own pace. She would do side quests because she wanted to.
And students will ask, “When’s the next quest or level going to unlock? I’m ready for it.” I’ve never had that until I gamified my classroom. I mean, it’s middle school math—who looks forward to middle school math? But my students do now.