5546 Innovation Practicum I


How can gamification be utilized to facilitate sight word retention while diagnosing particular learning styles among K-1st graders?

  1. INTRODUCTION – first semester lit review

School is scary, and not just for the child. As a first time parent, I remember my kid’s first day of kindergarten. He bounced into the classroom with his oversized backpack that seemed to consume him ready to conquer the adventure he was embarking on. As my husband and I walked out of the school I said to him, “I just hope he enjoys learning.”

thesis1     I didn’t care if he excelled, I just wanted him to have fun and his first impression of school not be an overbearing, rigorous monster that would terrorize him for the next 13 years. We were fortunate that his first day was a success but each day following presented a new challenge. Part of his curriculum was to do lessons at home and I quickly realized that asking my 5-year-old to sit still, sound out words, and write them was a grueling request. He would fidget, bang his pencil on the table or his forehead, become distracted and draw characters from his favorite video game, and the worst was when he would eventually be in tears and say, “I can’t do this . . .I’m just a failure.” Something had to change. My husband and I started scouring the internet for different lessons that would make learning his words fun. As we did this, I started to notice that activities involving movement and games had a higher success rate and he retained the information longer. It made me realize that he had a specific learning style and probably wasn’t the only kid struggling because traditional lesson plans didn’t accommodate their needs.

This epiphany led me to researching differentiated learning: the idea that multiple pathways can be taken to arrive at the same destination. Educators examine this concept with four different lenses: content, process, product and environment.1 To create the most conducive learning experience you have to start with a holistic look at:thesis2

  • What are you going to teach?
  • How are you going to teach it?
  • How will it be assessed?
  • How does the environment play a role?

Differentiated learning also implies learning styles. This is the idea that students learn and/or retain information in different ways depending on their preferred sense: visual (seeing and reading), auditory (hearing and speaking), and kinesthetic (touching and doing).1 The various lessons we did with my son helped us ascertain he was a kinesthetic learner and asking him to focus while sitting completely still was the equivalent to asking a grandfather clock to keep time without moving its pendulum. Not only did his learning style become apparent, but I also noticed his ability to focus for hours while playing games. It was amazing to me that a kid who couldn’t read the word my, even though we had just covered it, could recognize the words fire and sand because they helped him construct glass in the popular game Minecraft. It seemed clear to me that gamifying his thesis3lessons in his learning style would not only make the learning experience fun but would help him retain the information – maybe without him even realizing that was my agenda.

The goal of my research is to show that by gamifying lessons, while considering learning styles, we can create a cognitively stimulating experience that helps students excel in areas that might have been met with resistance to traditional instruction. As a design researcher, I want to ensure that all aspects of the study and final product have been considered, and the end result yields more than a gimicky game that keeps the users attention for a mere ten minutes but a human-centered product that considers the individual students needs and expectations while providing valuable data to facilitators.

My argument will be rooted in activity theory, a meta-level understanding that multiple factors, agents and issues account for certain outcomes. First introduced in the late 1920’s by Lev Vygotsky, Alexi Leonteov and Sergei Rubinstein, activity theory analyzes the mental capabilities of an individual while considering the impact of outside elements such as: environment, culture, tools, and rules.18 As children go through the education process they encounter multiple mentors, events, thesis4obstacles, and resources. They come with their own set of ideals and cultures. All of these elements play an active role in how they perceive and interpret their surroundings as well as what actions they take when faced with a decision. By using activity theory as my framework, I will examine the impact gamifying lessons will have and how that can yield data that facilitators can use to tailor student lessons.

By gamifying their lessons and considering their experiences holistically, we can gain a unique perspective on what learning style they are prone to and how to approach them when expecting a certain outcome, such as the retention of sight words. Studies have shown that once a young child gets off to a poor start in reading they rarely catch up, and their dismal start can amount to missed vocabulary opportunities and a general bad attitude towards reading.17 It is crucial that we understand the motivation of the student. At five or six years old their priorities, such as learning to read, are not the same as their instructors. They are still exploring their surroundings, trying to make sense of the world and play is how they process this information. By aligning the instructor and child’s priorities, both parties can reach the goals necessary to create a successful student.thesis5

If a student is struggling with a particular subject, common practice is to simply increase their exposure to it, not to approach it from a different angle. For example, if a child is not responding to a phonics introduction to reading the remedy is to increase their phonics instruction. Children are sometimes labeled “disabled” if they don’t respond to the traditional form of teaching.5 This labeling discounts other areas where the child might be exceling, making for a inaccurate scale of intelligence. Instructors should be more equipped to handle students’ different learning styles and children should be exposed to more opportunities to absorb and retain information. The more tools a student is equipped with the more confidence they will have when tackling challenging instruction.

I began my study by conducting secondary research on differentiated learning, specifically learning styles. Introduced in the early nineteenth century by Carl Jung, learning style theory explains the major differences in how people perceive and make decisions. It was later made popular by Howard Gardner, Kathleen Butler, and others. Two elements common in learning styles are a focus on process and the emphasis on personality. The process, being how an individual absorbs, thinks about, and evaluates information while personality involves the persons thoughts and feelings.4 To understand what learning style a student might have we have to compile a learning profile. thesis6This profile encompasses the total strengths and weaknesses they possess. We have to ask:

  • How does that child consume information?
  • How do they process patterns?
  • How does their attentional system work?

Input, output, and patterning are all connected to our senses and learning connections are made through those channels.1 Our senses are how we consume information and our preferred sense will most likely dictate our favored method of input. I knew from observing my son that I could hold his attention longer if the lesson was hands on and active. He needed to touch things, move around. His preferred way of input was through movement. Most learners will fall into the visual, auditory and kinesthetic categories or some combination of them.1 Instead of focusing on student’s deficiencies because they do not respond to a particular teaching style, teachers should introduce lessons that are multisensory and account for the different ways students input information. Once an instructor understands a child’s learning style they can tailor lessons to fit them.thesis7

I am concentrating on the three main sensory channels: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Learners that find strength in listening and speaking are auditory learners. Sometimes these learners struggle in school because of their aversion to apply their knowledge to print. These learners will sometimes find writing tedious and that can present itself in short or vague responses to essay questions.1 A strategy that can help these learners is to use mnemonics, rhymes or audio repetition when studying. Visual learners have a tendency to favor visual instruction. This can include posters, graphs and/or print text. These learners can benefit from sitting in the front of the classroom and writing down notes that can later be organized and color-coded. Kinesthetic learners require some physical aspect to their learning. This can involve movement, solving problems by working through them and/or teaching the material to a fellow peer. Each style presents its own set of challenges as well, for example, a visual learner might struggle if they are expected to sit and listen to a teacher lecture. The same is with a kinesthetic learner, a long lecture might cause them to start fidgeting or lose attention. Although, teaching in the various styles can have overlapping advantages. If a teacher chooses to do a project-based lesson tailored for kinesthetic learners, visual and auditory can benefit through group discussion and reading directions to each other. The following tables show the facts, identifiers, benefits, challenges, and activities associated with each sensory channel:







Seeing, hearing and touching are primary senses when it comes to learning. They are responsible thesis9for the storing, remembering, and recalling of information. Lessons that cater to mainly one sense will leave a large number of students at a disadvantage. To ensure a student is receiving the optimal amount of instruction, teachers need a mechanism to understand that child’s learning strengths. Schooling is now generalized because of the teacher to student ratio and budget limitations. It is difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to diagnose each students learning style and then create specific lessons for each one. As a way to help the teachers diagnose while delivering instruction I am proposing the introduction of gamification, or applying incentive, to a task the students are already required to do such as learn sight words. By creating a game that allows students to choose their own method, or learning style, to solve a puzzle educators can collect data that will give them a snapshot of the type of learner that particular student is. Learning sight words is common curriculum among kindergarten and first-graders. It is plausible to use a game that teaches these words while capturing the choices the student makes in the game.

Gamification is a fairly new phenomenon that has gained immense popularity in business and education within the last five years. Nick Pelling first coined “gamification” in 2002. It specifically meant, “applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both thesis15enjoyable and fast.”12 It is now used mainly to motivate people to change behaviors, develop skills, or to drive innovation. It applies game mechanics and dynamics to a task not normally associated with gaming.9 The most important aspect of gamification, and what sets it apart from traditional gaming, is that it is used to motivate people to achieve shared goals. This idea of shared goals, or priorities, is resonant to the problem stated above between the teacher and the young learner. Game mechanics are what gamifys an activity such as applying points, levels, or badges for completing tasks. Dynamics reflect the motivations of the player such as reward, status, and achievement.9 To be a successful game in the classroom, these elements need to be strategically leveraged to create an engaging experience that will deliver instruction.

Instructors have started introducing “stealth learning” into their classrooms. They are using non-traditional tools such as games to deliver lessons. Students think they are playing and having fun as they simultaneously learn the material.11 According to James Paul Gee there are 36 learning principles found in video games that can affect positively affect cognitive development. Some of the most interesting among the 36 are:14

  • thesis14Transfer Principle – the idea that learners are given plenty of opportunities to practice as well as use learned knowledge to solve later problems.
  • Discovery Principle – the learner is given a strategic amount of information allowing them to make choices and discoveries on their own.
  • Multimodal Principle – information is presented to the learner in multiple ways such as text, graphics, and sounds.
  • Achievement Principle – Rewards are presented at multiple levels allowing a learner of all skills to have a sense of mastery as they perform tasks.

Game-based learning also exposes students to a broader form of literacy. While playing a game, the user has to consider symbols, graphs, diagrams, and images – all forms literacy. The combination of words with the corresponding image also helps reinforce memorization.14 It is advantageous for teachers to incorporate games into the classroom; they can require a student to think through problems, promote collaboration, and stay engaged.11 In a study done by Project Tomorrow, teachers expressed an interest in incorporating games in the classroom. They reported an increase in student engagement and saw how different learning styles where addressed while thesis11playing.15 According to an infographic done by onlinecollegecourses.com 91% of kids aged 2-17 are familiar with video games and 60% of teachers say “using digital games helps personalizepersonalize instruction, better assess knowledge and collect helpful information.”16 A study of 14 K-12 school districts reported a 20% increase in achievement scores from using academic games.11 Understanding student learning outcomes and assessment are crucial aspects to utilizing games in the classroom. By implementing educational games in the classroom, teachers can receive immediate feedback on student progress. It also allows them to adjust their lessons if they see a child struggling with a particular concept.8 Using games in a digital format as a mode of distributing lessons gives teachers a way to capture data that can produce detailed analysis of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. This analysis could produce a more accurate measure of intelligence, avoiding prematurely labeling a student disabled.

Playing games require a user to develop strategies to “level up.” They encourage a student to practice and continue to try despite them losing. Learning through play also allows the student to feel a sense of ownership over their learning experience instead of passively listening to “irrelevant” information. If we empower students by giving them choices during their learning thesis12experience they will feel invested and by accommodating their learning style we can increase their retention. Applying gamification to learning styles while facilitating a lesson lets both the student and teacher accomplish a shared goal. The student has fun while learning, in their preferred style, and the teacher is able to deliver instruction and help the student succeed.


Technology mashup concepts: 
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Going into next semester I will expand on my secondary research while developing a prototype and conducting qualitative research via interviews, surveys, and focus groups.