How can Gamification Support Learning?

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How can Gamification Support Learning?

Dr. Joanna Burchert

“Learning isn’t about the delivery of content. It’s the experience of content rich ideas, activities, processing time and reflection” (Kim Cofino[1])

When learners don’t engage enough with learning content, they do not process it adequately. When learners are overburdened, they are not able to understand a learning opportunity. The productive space in between is what Bjork and Bjork (2011) named “desirable difficulties”. Desirable difficulties “create certain types of challenges, focused on slowing the rate of apparent learning so that long-term retention and transfer are optimized” (Bjork & Bjork 2020). Gamification goes together with challenges as well. Those challenges can be realized as quizzes and storytelling, for example. Let’s take a look at the desirable difficulties defined by Bjork and Bjork and see how gamification can be implemented here. 

Robustly building upon previous studies, Bjork and Bjork (2011) summarize the following practices that support learning by creating desirable difficulties:

  • Varying the conditions of practice. 

What can be varied? The place where learning occurs, but also the learning content (for example, a process like load securing can be illustrated with different scenarios that have specific challenges).

Gamified approaches can support this in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, they can change the setting of learning: you can invite learners to go for a walk, to work in a group instead of studying alone, or create a scenario through storytelling. On the other hand, you can enable learners to vary effects of their action by offering games where different decisions lead to different results, or just by formulating test questions that refer to different conditions which are relevant in practice.

  • Spacing study or practice sessions.

To space learning means to distribute it over time – the contrary of spacing is “massing”. The positive effects of spaced, distributed learning on long-term retention are one of the most general and robust effects in the history of pedagogical research (Bjork & Bjork 2011, Lipowsky et al. 2015).

How can gamification support spacing? As Bjork and Bjork (2011) point out, learners often prefer massive over spaced learning because if feels convenient and suits the logic of formal educational institutions. However, in (work) life, you need to build up on knowledge and skills and long-term retention is necessary to master daily challenges. Gamification can support spaced study or practice sessions by implementing them as short/ manageable, motivating challenges into daily life. For example, DEKRA’s High Voltage training includes an app that, after an initial, microlearning-based phase, offers scenario-based questions where the acquired competences can be applied. Active pedagogical chatbots which not only provide just-in-time answers but also raise challenging questions are another promising approach to support spacing by gamification.

  • Interleaving the practice of separate topics or tasks.

To interleave means to vary the sequence of tasks instead of first practicing one thing in a block and then another. It also means to mix content where adequate instead of separating it. Lipowsky et al. (2015) e.g. combined tasks where different mathematical operations like adding and multiplying were required. Again, blocked learning may have better results when tested in short-termed and blocked conditions but shows fails in log-term retention. With Kahneman (2012), it can be argued that tasks that appear too easy are not taken seriously by learners - they are completed without further attention or consideration and quickly forgotten.

Gamified approaches offer great opportunities to support interleaved practice. One example that Bjork and Bjork (2011) describe as successful interleaving practice is the following: Participants were asked to learn the styles of twelve artists based on a sample of 6 paintings by each artist. Interleaving practice meant that the learners had to decide which of the shown pictures was done by a certain artist – and which one was not. Based on this idea, other gamified challenges can be created, also for work-based learning. Even simple quizzes that are based on a varying algorithm can be applied to support retention.

  • Generation effects and using tests (rather than presentations) as learning events.

​​​​Bjork and Bjork (2011) argue that you “rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity” when you “look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead”. 

Especially tests and similar retrieval attempts boost learning, stabilize memory, and show the learners where they have gaps. A test at the beginning of a learning sessions creates attention for the following content activates prior knowledge which can be built upon.

It is easy to implement tests as gamified approaches to self-testing. These tests can include comparisons with previous performance or with peers’ performance. They can be realized with special tools, but also be embedded in discussions or PowerPoint presentations.

What can you do to assure that you don’t create undesirable difficulties?

  • Make sure that the learners are competent enough to master your challenges, and also, that they perceive the challenge as manageable.
  • Avoid overburdening by cognitive overload, e.g. do not use irrelevant illustrations because they can distract attention (see Shank 2022).
  • Make sure that the desirable difficulties are not undesirable difficulties for you: there are different ways to realize each principle, and you can choose your own way to get there - some are easy, others require a lot of technical and pedagogical effort. Check out available tools as well as Open Educational Resources which are often already gamified and may suit your curriculum as well as the idea of desirable difficulties.

Of course, additional pedagogical effects ought to be considered when you think about learning effects of gamification. For example, visualizations of progress such as levels give an orientation of the learning path which enhances processes of self-regulatory learning. This includes the planning, implementation and assessment of learning activities supported by (meta-)cognitive, motivational and emotional processes, e.g. attention management (Dyrna 2021, p. 84 ff.).

The challenge to measure effects of gamification is that learning is not always visible. Bjork and Bjork (2011) distinguish learning from performance as follows:

“Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training. Learning—that is, the more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction—is something we must try to infer, and current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether learning has occurred”.

Therefore, read studies on gamification effects with care and take them as practice-based theory like Desirable Difficulties as a compass to design your training.

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56–64). Worth Publishers.

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied research in Memory and Cognition, 9 (4), 475-479.

Dyrna, J. (2021). Selbstgesteuert, -organisiert, -bestimmt, -reguliert? Versuch einer theoretischen Abgrenzung. In: Dyrna, J., Riedel, J., Schulze-Achatz, S. & Köhler, T. (Hrsg.). Selbstgesteuertes Lernen in der beruflichen Weiterbildung. Ein Handbuch für Theorie und Praxis, S. 84-106.

Kahneman, D. (2012). Schnelles Denken, Langsames Denken. Siedler Verlag, München.

Lipowsky, F., Richter, T., Borromeo-Ferri, R., Ebersbach, M. & Hänze, M. (2015). Wünschenswerte Erschwernisse beim Lernen. Schulpädagogik heute 6 (11), S. 1–10.

Shank, P. (2022). When Graphics Lower Learning. URL:
[1], 02/03/2023

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