Gamification Strategies for Retention, Motivation, and Engagement in Higher Education

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Gamification Strategies for Retention, Motivation, and Engagement in Higher Education: Emerging Research and Opportunities by Robert Costello

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For many learners, the transition to Higher Education (HE) from Further Education (FE)/Industry is somewhat a difficult challenge, and for institutions, they must focus on retention (Escamilla, Ostadalimakhmalbaf, Pariafsai, Gragera, & Alizadeh, 2018). Retention itself is one of the biggest challenges facing FE/HE worldwide, as the cost of a student is high and the macro community that built up around them, which they benefit. Gale & Parker. (2014), van Herpen, Meeuwisse, Hofman, & Severiens, (2019) and Huang, Nathawitharana, Ong, Keller, & Alahakoon, (2019), point out that learners need additional support when first arriving into HE, to feel that they are in a positive environment, in which they connected to fellow peers, staff, and support groups. This initial start process facilitates a social mobility movement and assists with a positive perspective of the institution (Wilson, Murphy, Pearson, Wallace, Reher, & Buys, 2014). In 2014, Wilson et al. mentioned that “that about 20 percent of students studying full time at higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United States and Australia fail to make the transition successfully; i.e., they do not continue into the second year”. Referring to the USA and Australia in general here in the UK, ours is 38%, according to Nces. ed.gov (2017). To expand further on this percentage, the UK HEI’s retention rates between the years of 2015 to 2016 were 62%, according to Nces.ed.gov (2017), when applying this to Open Admission Criteria. These retention figures could be due to a variety of attributing facts like HE has become more challenging (Gale et al. 2019); resource-intensive (van Herpen et al. 2019); diversity of needs (Huang et al. 2019); not having a diverse range of highly qualified teachers (Eakins and Eakins, 2019); and lacking the approaches to educational theories (Richards & Templin 2019). Cabrera, Miner, & Milem, (2013), Gale & Parker (2014) and Huang et al. (2019) indicates that there have been some significant advancements approaches to retentions issues from financial support(Filippakou & Tapper, (2019), transitional student programs, summer bridging courses to intervention measures and support (Wilson et al. 2014).


HEIs must draw upon research to address issues of retention by providing ongoing support and implementing intervention methods. Current research points to a lack of knowledge from HEIs and the delivery of care they receive through the supportive networks (Gazeley & Hinton-Smith, 2018) as needs are always evolving and adapting. This reflective of the dynamic relationship HEIs have within the learners. There are a variety of approaches that can be adopted within HEIs to focus on intervention measures (Wilson et al. 2014). These factors could involve receiving additional help from family, social, political, and economic background (Costello, 2017), location, and identifying the individual’s needs earlier (Huang et al. 2019). Dougherty & Callender, (2018) points out that through changing policies towards supporting the learners would “fostering economic growth and reducing socioeconomic inequality” (Dougherty & Callender, 2018) and engaging more towards, Information, Advice, and Guidance (IAG) provision. HEIs within the UK and across the globe could adopt policies like Performance funding (Dougherty & Callender, 2018) and shadow education (Costello, 2017) while offering benefits to a student who improves retention, progression, and completion through formulating strategies and policies (Huang et al. 2019). As Chiwandire & Vincent, (2019) point out, HEIs are for everyone, and governance/policies do support students with disabilities (SWDs), and retention is all about focusing on learner centricity. Learner Centricity is where individual needs are provided for while being supported to ensure success and equality matched while services are tailored to individuals’ educational needs to ensure a learner with disabilities (PWDs) can participate effectively within the learning life cycle. García‐Redondo, García, Areces, Garmen, & Rodríguez, (2017) and Annansingh-Jamieson, (2017) suggests that to accommodate individuals with disabilities there are a variety of different learning approaches that can be adopted by HCIs to improve retention and one, in particular, is that of Gamification. Ifigenia, Jaime, Julien, and Cesar, (2018) and Morgan (n.d.) indicates that Gamification, in general, can assist with activities, to improve retention, not just through knowledge, but also through attendance using video games activates, and support mechanism.


Gaming technologies have effectively utilized as learning tools to improve retention, engagement, motivation, and solving problems. Coonradt (2007) mentions in his book, ‘Game of Work, How to Enjoy Work as Much as Play,’ applied early concepts of gamification into business context trying to motivate the workforce, using feedback, personal choice, and setting clear goals. One particular aspect mentioned by Coonradt (2007) was to improve feedback based upon performance to “give you enough positive reinforcement to make you want to keep playing, to keep improving, to beat your past performance standards” (Coonradt, 2007, p9, Chapter 8).


There have been other researchers like De Freitas, Morgan, & Gibson, (2015), Costello (2017*) and Putz & Treiblmaier, (2019) who were experimenting with gaming mechanics to increase engagement levels from the learners within Education. As mentioned by Saputro, Salam, Zakaria, & Anwar, (2019), Gamification is used to harness this evolutional path of growth, through providing the individuals with excitement, enjoyment, and positive feedback. Research on their applicability within education and their effectiveness in supporting a variety of diversifiable needs of the learners has evolved rapidly within the last ten years due to demands of technologies, in which Higher Education Institutions can now invest in a variety of equipment. This technology can vary from; VR Fully equipped 3D virtual laparoscopic operating room to AR (3D Systems, 2017; Jang et al. 2017; Koivisto et al. 2017; Lupton, 2017). Saputro, Salam, Zakaria, & Anwar, (2019) point out that gamification enables individuals to shape their own social identity and status while expressing their own needs to help the development of groups.


Researchers Seaborn, (2014), Flores, (2015), Behnke, (2015) & Costello (2017*) indicate that by mapping educational content using gaming technologies, educators can offer supportive pedagogical approaches, adaptive infrastructures, and design to challenge the learners. The idea of Gamification is to apply game dynamics and strategies to engage and motivate learners to achieve their goals (Bostan & Altun, 2016; Saputro et al. 2019). Through building upon excitement and motivation the educator can engage the learners in a variety of tasks to aid in social interaction (Putz & Treiblmaier 2019), community-based learning (Saputro et al. 2019); connectivity and other learning approaches to provide a learning environment that is fun, entertaining and intellectually stimulating. These approaches, as mentioned above, according to Hussain, Qazi, Ahmed, Streimikiene, and Vveinhardt (2018), prepare learners for the industry.


Educators can harness this positive relationship by using collaborative/individual projects, tutorials, and training programmes, through gaming examples or gaming engines to harness the student’s ability, rewarding their progress with a variety of different types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational techniques to enhance and empower the way they learn and to maximize the results from the learning process. This empowerment through gamification and motivation would provide the learner with the necessary ability to change their behavior through having the right support (Kumar, 2013; Muntean, 2011; Xu, 2011; Bennett et al. 2017; Nuutinen et al. 2017; Jin, 2017; McKeown et al. 2016). Nivedhan & Priyadarshini, (2018) agrees with the concepts of gamification like that of (Nuutinen et al. 2017; Jin, 2017; McKeown et al. 2016) and indicates that It is essentially the same as HEI that Industry also needs to adapt to improving retention and empowering individuals to gain new strategies and growth. Retention not only in business is essential, but adaptability throughout all sectors and gamification can provide a flexible tool to assist in retaining individuals, knowledge, resources, and skills (Hussain, Qazi, Ahmed, Streimikiene, & Vveinhardt, 2018).


If the individual is not motivated and not empowered, then how is the learning activity going to be solved? Through the use Intrinsic and Extrinsic approaches, the learner can be motivated through understanding the behavior of the individual, by offering rewards, badges, or even points (Extrinsic) or by creating meaningful goals for which the user can aim to achieve at a suitable level before progressing to the next level (Intrinsic) (Mitchell, Schuster, & Jin, 2018). These approaches provide an educational support network to reinforce the learner’s behavior and encourage self-acceptance when problem-solving (Freudig et al. 2019).


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