IATEFL 2015 – Getting Gamification Beyond the Basics

Moving on now to IATEFL 2015, an event I had the pleasure of attending in person instead of watching from afar via the excellent IATEFL Online service (see the end of this post for details of how you can follow this year’s event).

There were no sessions on game-based learning that year (unless you count my brief showcase of the app Can You Escape? at the LTSIG PCE, but more on that in my next post). There were, however, two sessions on gamificaiton; one which I saw in person, and one which I watched after returning home from the archive of recorded sessions. Read on for reviews of both.

As mentioned in another post, there was a regrettable lack of sessions on game-based learning at this year’s IATEFL Conference. A careful study of the programme before hand revealed a couple of sessions on gamification, which is of course not the same thing (as I have previously explained on this blog), but nevertheless I decided to attend one of them on the last day.

I am never sure what to expect from gamification sessions, just as I am not sure what to think about the whole concept… Actually, let me rephrase that – the concept sounds good but it seems to me that in practice, it rarely goes beyond the superficial awarding of point and achievements. Talks on it can be the same – they can be insightful or they can be lacking in substance, little more than ‘gaming is fun so gamified lessons are fun!’ exclamations.

Heading into Elena Peresada’s “How to Gamify Your Class” session, I was wondering what the talk would be like. Would it be all ‘points and prizes’? Would I soon find myself wishing I had gone to one of the other talks on offer? Or would I be pleasantly surprised by a talk that would go beyond the basics and get into more depth about the real benefits of ramified learning?

It quickly became clear that this was something Elena was passionate about and her immediate energy and enthusiasm for the topic helped keep my initial skepticism at bay. As it happened, it was a great session that managed to not only get past the points but also give practical examples of fully gamified lessons.

Elena talked us through her journey into gamification, describing how at first she was searching for a way to motivate and engage her students more. Once she introduced points for doing homework tasks and a ranking system for rewards earned in class, she noticed an improvement in most students. However, a classic problem then comes up – what about the students who are not earning points? What about the ones at the bottom of the ladder?

This was when the talk got interesting. Elena also acknowledged this problem and emphasised that a system of points and levels might be a good place to start (as I did a few years ago) but it isn’t enough on its own. The motivation is temporary…

So, how can we make gamification work beyond this superficial level? Elena suggested exploring the other aspects that make games so engaging – the game dynamics, the element of player control and choice, and the immersion in the unfolding narrative. Simply tacking ‘gamified’ systems onto everyday coursebook material will never work. Starting from scratch and designing a series of lessons with your own ideas and materials is the way to go.

Elena then showed us a board game she had created themed around a haunted house. As the students played through this game, they had the chance to uncover language, make choices, tackle challenge, and become emotionally invested in the story.

Her energy and enthusiasm did much to convince me that there is more to gamification. However, it still left me thinking that you would need a dedicated teacher with a lot of energy to make it really work!

One other talk, which I couldn’t attend in person but was able to watch after returning from Manchester thanks to the IATEFL Online service was Christien Lee’s session entitled “Raising scores: gamification activities for test preparation teachers”

(Again, please see the original post on my previous blog for an embedded recording of the session).

Christien obviously focused on gamification in test prep classes aiming to present universal adaptable activites for helping students get ready for any number of exams, or alternatively to use in text-based lessons. He again took the initial position that exam prep classes can struggle to keep the attention of students and teachers alike. However, they are often high-stakes scenarios with university places and future careers at stake. Therefore, gamification and its potential to alter behaviour can be a big help.

The contrast with Elena’s talk was interesting in that while she built an entire series of lessons around gamification, Christien preferred to use it sparingly so the novelty would not wear off. It was also interesting to hear how gamification can make the purpose of activities clouded. If the stduents focus on the game elements rather than the task at hand, they may lose interest. Also, time came up again – although Christien states that the intial input time does not need to be repeated, I remain unconvinced that the preparation effort is worth it in the end results.

I like Christien’s approach of identifying a problem and then looking at how gamification can help solve it. However, I do disagree with his assertion that tasks must model exam conditions as closely as possible. While timed-tasks are important as the exam approaches, I feel that working in non-exam conditions without the pressure of a time limit or word limit helps students get inside the exam more. They then can attempt them in exam conditions after they have become accustomed to the task types. Task types first, task mechanics later.

Anyway, back to Christien’s suggested activities. He suggests awarding points for finishing early (not too early to avoid rushing) and points per right answer (with questions graded by the teacher for difficulty) and also deducts points for wrong answers. There were also challenges for bonus points with all the points added up at the end to choose a winner. He then describes ‘listening levels’ in which he ups the tempo of listening texts to get students used to listening at a faster speed with the gamification coming in as an element of challenge…

But I remain unconvinced…In this situation, is there not a risk that the game points distract from the test points? Won’t the announcement that a student got 30 points have them wondering if that is game points or a score out of 40? Personally, I would prefer to spend time unpacking the elements of the test, making sure students understand the question types, and then moving onto the timed practice activities later. In gamification terms, I felt more compelled to try out Elena’s approach… but I’ll have to find the time first!

This post originally appeared at http://eltsandbox.weebly.com/blog/iatefl-2015-getting-gamification-beyond-the-basics in April, 2015.

Don’t forget that you can follow this year’s IATEFL 2017 Conference online at:


http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017 | Tune in for live coverage from Glasgow Monday 3rd April


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