5 Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion Rate

There are a plethora of online courses available for everything from learning AP math to learning how to play the guitar.

But did you know that according to the journal Science, MIT researchers revealed that a whopping 97% of learners don’t actually complete online courses?

The course information, built with input from experts and presented in easily accessible formats however, is all there.

But this does not mean it translates immediately into motivated, engaged learners who complete their courses and achieve their goals.

After all, if you’re just on the receiving end of a lot of information, it’s a lot easier to close the tab on your laptop and switch to something more engaging.

The same is also true when you’re in a live classroom, where you might be similarly passive, but unable to walk out.

However, there is a solution – not just to increase online course completion rates but also to increase learner success and goal achievement.

Gamification is the Game-Changer for Course Completion and Increased Learner Motivation

Gamification, which is incorporating game-like elements into the non-game context of online courses, can up the completion rate, as well as retention of the material, to over 50% according to numerous studies.*

Gamification can also motivate learners to complete training in less time.

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion Rate

For example, according to CommLab India, “Delta Airlines tried gamification of learning to help their call center employees focus on customer service and sales skills.

The company wanted its employees to complete online training programs and learn more. With their Ready, Set, Jet project, the airlines introduced gamification in its e-learning courses.

The results were amazing. Delta Airlines employees completed four years’ worth of training, in a single year.”

Turns out, incorporating fun and games into learning can, in fact, benefits learners in many ways.

Gamification gives learners more control, a greater sense of accomplishment helps foster a competitive spirit, and can shorten learning time.

Read on to see how gamifying online courses increases learner success!

5 Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion Rate

1. Increased Motivation

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion RateOnline games are addictive, right?

Clearing a level on Candy Crush, catching a Pokemon that has been eluding you for days, getting that “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!” after a hard-fought PUBG session…

If you’ve experienced any of those things or an equivalent in any other game, you know nothing is comparable to the winner’s high.

Online games and apps make use of the brain’s reward system and motivation chemicals, dopamine, and serotonin. Even in apps and online learning games like Vocabulary Quest where you can learn 1200 new vocabulary words, or apps like Duolingo for language learning,  you’ll see gamification setting you up for success at every level.

These rewards get you even more motivated to keep playing and keep experiencing that winner’s high!

However, it’s important to note that rewards should not be given consistently in any online course, and here’s why.

B.F. Skinner, one of America’s leading psychologists, created the variable schedule of reinforcement.

This increases both the desire to continue as well as learner engagement because the learner can’t always predict when rewards will happen.

That same variable reward schedule is what keeps gamblers playing – the feeling of what might happen at any given time.

So, when you gamify your online course, make sure to include quick wins immediately and add intermittent, unexpected rewards.

In a study in the journal Informatics, the effects of gamification in online learning environments showed that adding gamification improves everything for the learner –

Motivation, course engagement, course completion rates, attention rates, and more, all show improvement thanks to gamification elements.

When you accomplish something, from a perfectly executed video game move to finally solving that tricky trigonometry problem, your brain’s reward center activates.

Why? It releases the neurotransmitter dopamine – also known as the motivation molecule or pleasure chemical – down your brain’s mesolimbic or “reward” pathway.

This is the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and accomplished – but that’s not all.

When you play a game and hit a milestone, your brain releases the chemical dopamine, and because your brain enjoys this feeling so much, it wants to do it again.

Like games, when online courses follow a similar format – unlock one level to get to the next, collecting points to exchange for bonuses, etc. – the sense of accomplishment you experience motivates you to keep learning!

Some educators cite how gamifying learning prompts students to do additional tasks or “quests” outside of mandatory assignments to unlock higher points and exclusive achievements.

Motivation is one of the strongest predictors of academic achievement – so you can see how gamifying online courses increases learner success!

2. Increased Online Course Engagement

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion RateInstead of learning being a one-way, one-size-fits-all model where you simply sit and receive the knowledge shared, gamifying learning requires your input to enable your progress.

One of the fundamental elements of games is problem-solving – there’s a goal, and you have to figure out how to reach it.

It’s an example of situated learning; you are continually learning in the process of being immersed in this experience.

You gather the information that will help you clear a specific obstacle or level; sometimes, you have to get the help of your friends to unlock a particular puzzle.

Because it requires your active participation, you are likely to concentrate and interact more with the learning material.

As a result, you’re also more likely to retain what you are learning; rather than sitting watching someone tell you how to do something, you’re doing it yourself!

This makes the experience much more relevant and meaningful to you and gets your brain to start forming neural pathways to store this new knowledge.

These connections get stronger every time you play the game or continue your gamified online course because progressing requires you to put into practice what you’ve learned.

3. Increased Retention of Learned Material

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion RateAs you can see, the increased engagement when you’re learning through a gamified online course can also increase retention.

The more your brain encounters specific information, and the more it has to recall it to apply in different contexts, the stronger the associations between your neurons grow to solidify your memory of it.

As you also now know, dopamine plays a significant role in this by activating your brain’s reward centers, making it want to experience that sense of reward and satisfaction again!

But that’s not all.

Dopamine also helps sharpen your focus and concentration.

This primes you up for learning, since not only is it more fun, but you are more alert, and your brain is more receptive to new information.

And one more thing…research shows that using more than one learning modality, i.e. auditory and visual, helps improve memory as well.

4. Gamification Provides Immediate Feedback in Online Courses

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion Rate

One of the ways traditional learning systems lack in keeping you motivated is the time between learning and assessments.

Since you’re not continually doing tests all the time in school, you might not feel motivated to study until there’s a test the next day.

Since you don’t get your exam grades back immediately after sitting for them, you don’t exactly know how well you performed and may not feel motivated to retain what you did learn.

With gamification of online courses, on the other hand, learning and assessment intertwine.

Some courses feature progress bars, to visually indicate to you how much you’ve completed, and how much progress you have yet to make.

Others have levels or tiers, and you can unlock badges or titles depending on your learning progress.

Your brain loves challenges – tasks that might be slightly difficult, but that you can accomplish.

The dopamine surge that you’ll start to associate with clearing a level or watching your progress bar expand gets you motivated to keep learning – even if you make mistakes.

Especially because you get immediate feedback as you’re taking a gamified online course, you can continue learning through trial and error until you get the right answer.

Being actively involved in problem-solving as you seek out a goal and using what you know to keep activating your reward pathways, is much more effective than sitting a test and forgetting all about it until you get your report card!

5. Gamification Enhances Personalized Learning

5 Best Ways Gamification Increases Learner Motivation and Online Course Completion RateEveryone learns differently and has a unique set of subject area passions.

Your unique learning style has different strengths, and with the right strategies, you can implement specific skills to learn how to learn.

This is also how gamifying online courses increases learner success – every learner experiences the course differently, suited to their learning styles.

Examples include providing points, badges, feedback, scores, leaderboards, and challenges, each associated with visual, auditory, and tactile modalities.

You may hear a sound, see a badge, get visual, auditory, and tactile feedback – all of which incorporate a person’s preferred learning modality.

In addition, learners can proceed at their own pace and gradually climb up difficulty levels, and with the stats available, they can see where their strengths and improvement areas are.

Another benefit: studies show that introverts prefer leaderboards, while extroverts prefer badges, rewards, and points.

And there are also personalized differences in what males and females prefer in the Informatics study mentioned earlier.

Subsequently, to keep leveling up, learners feel motivated to work on the areas where they need more practice, for instance, doing “side-quests” or practice tests.

This one-to-one learning personalized learning is a lot more effective than a standard, one-size-fits-all lesson approach that does not account for different learning styles nor learner pacing.

As a result, gamification of learning has tons of potential for making learning fun, addictive, and productive for learners who were previously passive and not achieving the maximum from the learning experience.

Now you know how gamifying online courses increase learner success – are you ready to give them a try yourself in your own online course?

pat wymanPat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of HowtoLearn.com. She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page.

Her courses, Total Recall Learning for Students, Total Recall Learning for ProfessionalsTotal Recall Speed Readingand Total Recall Memory have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.

She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.

*Samples of study citations:

Second ACM Conference on Learning 2018 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON)

Informatics – The Effects of Gamification in Online Learning Environments


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