Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Playing for success
Author: Corporate Communication - Dr Alec Basson
Published: 14/01/2020

​​It is becoming increasingly important to enhance students' engagement with their work as this has been identified as a significant predictor of student success. One of the ways in which student engagement can be improved is through the use of game elements, better known as gamification, in online learning activities.

“Educational gaming has the potential to support and enhance authentic learning experiences. It can motivate students to be more engaged with their work and ultimately help them to be successful in their studies," says Dr Samantha Adams (photo, page 21), a lecturer in the Department of Industrial Psychology at Stellenbosch University (SU). As part of her recent doctorate in Industrial Psychology, Samantha took elements of games, such as points, badges, leader boards, levels and competition, to design a gamified platform on SU's learning management system, SUNLearn. Two Industrial Psychology modules and the associated online learning activities provided the content for this gamified platform.


Samantha says it was still the same course work but structured in a more engaging way. “The online tasks students were used to do were built into the gaming platform as levels or challenges that they needed to complete to move to the next level. All of this was aligned with the chapters or themes they were covering in class." The game elements were used to get students more engaged with the course work and motivated to complete assignments and to collaborate more with each other through group work. The online content and activities on the gamified platform provided students with an opportunity to do additional practice of the work they had already covered in class and to improve on their learning. 

Samantha says the findings of her study suggest that game elements combined with thoughtfully designed learning activities can encourage and facilitate student engagement in that they participate in and complete the tasks set out. “When students are engaged, there's a better chance of them being successful." As far as student engagement itself is concerned, Samantha specifically looked at the different dimensions of engagement that would contribute to engagement that is created through the participation in educational activities. These dimensions include students' behavioural engagement (do they attend class and engage with activities on the University's learning management system?), emotional engagement (do students value what they are doing; is the course work a valuable exercise?) and cognitive engagement (do students think about what they are learning; do they project into the future how they will use the information that they're gaining in the classroom?).


“Educational gamification influences students' emotional, behavioural and cognitive engagement through the perceived motivational or rewarding influences of the game elements, the relevance of the activities and enjoyment of the experience. “But when these factors are absent or cause frustration or anxiety, they are likely to have a negative influence on both emotional and behavioural engagement," adds Samantha. 

She says if students perceived the activities as helpful, relevant or meaningful for their learning, they were more likely to continuously participate and progress to the next level once the goal was achieved. If the use of the learning material provides an opportunity for the student to apply the content it may lead to a more meaningful interaction with the content. “It is important that students like a specific subject in order to enjoy the game elements in the content. The level of engagement was lower among students who didn't enjoy the subject and that the gamification of the content did little to improve engagement," Samantha explains.


In addition to the gamified platform, Samantha developed design principles that could guide other lecturers in different fields who would want to use game elements as part of their teaching. These include providing focused goals that establish and convey the purpose of the learning activities; providing challenging tasks that convey meaning and relevance; providing rapid feedback regarding progress; creating opportunities for social interaction through competition or collaboration; and creating an environment that inspires curiosity and novelty and allows for creative thinking and authentic problem-solving. 

Samantha says if these principles are applied correctly, they could get students more engaged. She adds that lecturers should also consider things like the context of students, the size of the group, programme structure and whether a module is compulsory or not when designing and using of gamified technologies. Her gamified platform, says Samantha, should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all because gamification is just one tool that can be used for student engagement and should primarily be for learning and not entertainment.

More about student success:

Student success is one of SU's strategic focus areas, because the University wants to offer all its students, including those with special learning needs, a transformative experience. Statistics show that SU is doing well in achieving this. In the 2018 academic year, SU awarded 9004 qualifications. Over the six years from 2013 to 2018, SU awarded 49624 qualifications, including an astonishing 8594 master's degrees and 1617 PhDs. 

SU awards approximately 10% of all PhDs in South Africa. From 2013 to 2018, the module pass rate has consistently been above 85%. SU showed the highest throughput of 84% compared to the national average of 68%. On average, eight out of ten students at SU complete their studies, and only one out of ten drops out. From 2012 to 2018, the Graduate School in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences awarded 114 PhDs. Since its launch in 2009, SU's African Doctoral Academy have offered summer and winter schools to 4500 current and prospective doctoral candidates and their supervisors from across Africa. 

Student success is achieved through, among others, targeted student support initiatives, essential psychotherapeutic services, a 24-hour crisis service, an innovative and stimulating learning environment that includes access to computer user areas, interactive satellite-based technology, and massive open online courses (MOOCs), WiFi in lecture halls, live-streaming, and mobile application of the learning management system, SUNLearn.

Published in the Matieland. Read more