Using Gamification and Social Learning to Transform Learner Engagement

Using Gamification and Social Learning to Transform Learner Engagement

Written by
Fred Thompson
Date published
February 10, 2021

Digital learning loves a good buzzword or acronym.

If it’s not a MOOC, an LMS, an LXP, or an EXP, it’s probably BlendedJust-in-time or Microlearning. But two fear-inducing buzzwords have a real impact on your learners engagement, if used correctly.

Social learning and Gamification .

Social Learning

Expanding on traditional behavioural theories, Social Learning is the theory that learning, as a cognitive process, can occur purely through observation in a social context and in which behaviour is governed solely by reinforcements. In addition to the observation of behaviour, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. When a particular behaviour is rewarded regularly, it will most likely persist.

Social behaviour exists in everyday life, and is a psychological trait. A study in 2013 found that hotel guests can be gently persuaded to reduce the number of towels they use each day by adding a sign in the room that linked behaviour to others guests, people who you believe you have a connection with.

Two alternating signs were placed in guest bedrooms:

  • "75% of guests in this hotel reuse their towels"
  • "75% of guests in this room reuse their towels"

The study found that guests cut their towel use significantly when told of the behaviour of previous guests in their room.

In the "room" scenario, guests used, on average, one towel per person per day. This compared with 1.6 towels per person per day for those told of behaviour in the hotel as a whole. This amounted to a 40% saving in the number of towels needing to be washed.

Using this psychological approach, a learning platform can be constructed and configured in a way to expose the “good” behaviour of other learners in your cohort or organisation and provide a gentle encouragement for the learner to engage positively with the learning content.

Your learner engagement cake tastes quite nice with Social Learning, but adding in the baking soda of Gamification will really see your Victoria Sponge rise.


It is widely accepted that if a student is engaged in his or her learning and demonstrates the qualities that engagement manifests, he or she will be a successful student. Combining a goal oriented approach to work are historically found (Edwin Locke, 1991) to encourage human engagement in what tasks would otherwise be considered by many to be unpleasant and undesirable to perform.

Gamification thus strives to utilize this goal-oriented approach to achieve engagement across learning content and platforms.

There are dozens of different mechanics found in games that can be applied to gamifying within learning platforms, but I will focus on two main ones here:

  • in-game items to players as they progress
  • a point based level progression system.

In-game Items

Often serving the purpose of either making a character stronger and allowing them to progress through the game more easily, or to act as a trophy of a particular goal that a player has reached. In the latter case, this is effectively an achievement based reward.

This system is typically implemented in Learning Management Systems in the form of Badges, and badges can be assigned to learners (both manually and automatically) as notable evidence of strong performance. Badges trigger an achievement adrenaline for the individual, but more powerfully, add the nitro-glycerine to Social learning by reinforcing and publicising a reward for valuable accomplishments.

Badges can be given out for various interactions within a learner journey, including:

  • Completing a course, programme or activity
  • Achieving above a mastery score or grade
  • Filling out your user profile or providing feedback
  • By being part of a certain cohort or audience.

Point Based Progression

This type of system is based on players gaining points for performing in-game tasks and then gaining levels based on the points they have gained. This allows the player to feel a sense of progression through the game at a gradual pace based on their amount of action in the game. One thing these mechanics have in common is that they revolve around some goal or objective.

There are two basic structures to goal progression; linear and non-linear.  Linear goal progression is rather simple and involves organizing goals in a fashion that they must be completed in a specific order and one must be completed prior to moving on to the next. This is a very logical and common practice in games and typically applied in learning platforms by the structure of the course or programmes and the prerequisites associated.

The other basic structure of goal progression is non-linear.  This is characterized by letting players choose how they proceed through the game. This approach is where gamification in learning can be taken in a different direction, and offer rewards, goals and objectives throughout the learner journey.

The allocation of points based upon common positive interactions within the system can be a consistent motivator to your learner. Typical examples where combining social elements to the learning will see points awarded for:

  • Posting your thoughts regarding the content on a forum or channel.
  • Responding to others in your cohort with helpful insight or reference material.
  • Bookmarking a learning content item for re-visit
  • Sharing learning content with others in your cohort or organisation that may find it useful.

Using these tools in your Learning Platform

When combining the two elements together, your learning platform can continue to draw back your learners into their objective and promote engagement with the content and with others, providing a self-sufficient circle of ideal students.

Many learning platforms profess to have gamification and social features, but be sure to delve deeper to view the extent of their functionality to ensure they meet the engagement objective for your learners.

Badge based reward systems are commonplace, where-as points based systems are less frequently found. Points based systems are typically a higher-end feature of a learning platform, as - for the gamification system to work correctly - your points must be directly comparable to your peers, which tends to lean on social learning elements too.

Finally, look to select a learning platform that can adapt to changes and can be expanded. The strategic direction of learner engagement can - and will - change over time, and you want to ensure that you are not forced into replacing your platform sooner than you imagined due to a restricted flexibility or extensibility.

Further information

If you would like some further pointers on learning platforms that support Social and Gamified learning strategies and offer advanced extensibility options too, you can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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