top of page

Gamification and Design Thinking within UDL can help to Reimagine Education

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

With the rise of online, blended, and hybrid learning compared to the traditional face-to-face model in this new pandemic era, students have begun to become more disengaged. They begin to develop new challenges in life while they are suddenly confronted with a lack of readiness to function in more self-directed and self-disciplined learning experiences.

It’s tragic that, as the world outside education changes and progresses faster and faster, the majority of kids are not being set up to succeed in the future that’s coming. We are entering a world where there is not a lot of value in just sitting and doing what you're instructed to do. Increasingly a computer could manage that sort of instruction or programming. We are eventually going to be forced to create a new model of education suited to the 21st century, instead of holding on to the last half of the 19th century. This literature review will explore the possibilities of harnessing gamification and design thinking within a blended learning model to enhance student engagement and future readiness.

Optimizing Student Engagement

One of the biggest problems with student learning is not the content, it's that the students are bored with how it's taught. Teachers know that students learn best when they are engaged but it is an elusive concept difficult to measure and easily confused with students attending to their work as required.

A recent article was written by Elliott Seif (2018) focuses on studies into dimensions of deep learning. He states that there are three levels of student engagement: passive, mixed, and highly engaged.

Level 1- Passive engagement: This lowest level of engagement is almost exclusively teacher-centered with passive or compliant students. Instruction is usually lectures, closed-ended questions that require simple responses with basic right and wrong answers, or basic assigned worksheet activities.

Level 2- Mixed engagement: This level mixes mostly teacher-centered practices with some student-centered. The times that are teacher-centered are much like level 1. The times that are student-centered are initiated through group activities, class discussions, and more compare and contrast types of activities.

Level 3- High Engagement: This level is most frequently student-centered where students are consistently actively engaged in the learning process. Teachers act more like coaches and facilitate independent/collaborative learning. Activities include visual organizers, research, open-ended discussions, project-based learning, role-playing, and more (Seif, 2018).

How can we as educators sustain the highest level of student engagement especially with the challenges we face with different learning environments?

How can we keep the learning centered on the students and not the teacher as the focal point of instruction?

In a recent group study, it was found that “students familiarize with new innovations about the subject matter after that group discusses the given problems and probe into groups to find out its solutions. If learning was accompanied by activities and discoveries and creating small groups and then attending to personal differences, making the person more powerful in logic and finding the solutions (Asoodeh & Zarepour, 2012).

This student-centered study found that students were able to connect their learning to themselves personally which resulted in a deeper understanding. The next step is finding a way to sustain this high level of learner engagement.

Over the years, I came to understand that the main virtue of the student centered classroom is that it removes mastery from the sole province of the teacher and allows students to be masters, too. It means I needed to — sometimes — leave them alone so they could learn. I understood that teachers can actually impede students’ learning (Kennedy, 2015).

The Gamification of the Classroom

Gamification is the integration of game-based concepts into non-game-based contexts. The addition of gamification in education would incorporate the game-based elements into lesson plans, curriculums, class rules and guidelines, behavioral systems, etc. It would essentially turn the classroom into a live role-playing or strategy game. A recent census done in 2019 states that kids from the age of 11-13 spend from about 5 to 7 hours a day on media usage. Approximately 30% of the time is spent playing games. This would show to be the 2nd largest percentage of time spent on a single media activity (Common Sense Media, 2019).

The foundation of gamification lies in certain principles that are experienced when playing video or computer games such as:

  • freedom of failing or making mistakes with small consequences

  • exploration and discovery

  • freedom of role-playing allowing the opportunity to see different perspectives

  • freedom of moving at one's own pace

It is important that students are solely focused on the technology or that they fall into the pitfall of expecting immediate rewards for their efforts. They must instead find value in the learning process. They must develop intrinsic motivation for a more sustained learning experience. The system must be designed to suit the objectives of the classroom. They must work within the existing curriculum rather than forcing an entirely new activity so the students can connect to its integration seamlessly. The system requires a strong commitment of both time and maintenance which becomes more valuable as the students take ownership of implementation.

A study published in the scientific journal Nature in 1998 showed that playing video games releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The amount of dopamine released while playing video games was similar to what is seen after intravenous injection of the stimulant drugs amphetamine or methylphenidate. "Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine," says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. That gives gamers a rush—but only temporarily, he explains (Paturel, 2014).

The combination of an increased focus on student engagement and the possibilities provided by blended learning can make gamification a powerful tool in the classroom. The platform provides an opportunity to incorporate skill-building and motivates students to be an advocate of their personal learning journey. Gamification can be compared to a multivitamin masked as a gummy that provides an enjoyable consumption of learning.

Video games can help the brain in several ways, such as enhanced visual perception, improved ability to switch between tasks, and better information processing. "In a way, the video game model is brilliant," says Judy Willis, M.D., neurologist, educator, and American Academy of Neurology (AAN) member based in Santa Barbara, CA. "It can feed information to the brain in a way that maximizes learning," she says (Paturel, 2014).

Implementing the Design Thinking Process

One future prediction that we can assume to remain a constant is that there will never be a shortage of problems in the world. As a result, one of the most important skills that our students must cultivate is the ability to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and problem finders.

The principles of Design Thinking can create environments that foster creativity, nurture curiosity, and create collaborative approaches to problems that we can solve and find. One of the things that are important to keep in mind about design thinking is that it is something that can be brought into a traditional curriculum. One of the biggest misconceptions when we hear the term, we think that it's associated with makerspaces, technology electives, or other courses but it's not something that I can do in History, English, Math, or Science. The goal is to explore how we can take the mindsets that come about from engaging in design thinking, the skills that we get as a result of engaging in the framework and bring those into our traditional curriculum mindsets.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that begins with developing empathy for those facing a particular challenge. It serves as a framework that helps to define problems, empathize with others, develop prototypes of possible solutions, and hone those prototypes through multiple iterations until they have generated a viable solution to the challenge at hand. Design thinking encourages a bias toward action and, because of its reliance on rapid prototyping, frees practitioners to embrace the notion of failing forward because it's OK to make mistakes -- that's where breakthrough ideas are born (Riddle, 2016).

One of the most important factors in the design thinking process comes when feedback is given. This is closer to the last stage when testing comes into play. I have found that feedback before grading creates a more impactful learning tool. It provides the students with guidance that tends to lead to where the disconnection took place. Students then can plan to pinpoint that same factor in future situations. Feedback is designed to bring about an improvement in learner’s performance and achievement. Feedback can be given by the practitioner or by peers. It can be either formal or informal. It can be oral or written, it can be formative or summative, but overall it must provide the learner with specific advice on how to improve their performance (Victoria State Government, 2020).


Today, we stand at the dawn of a new era. An era where we are now forced into being disrupted with innovation. For our survival, we must now embrace the shards of innovative practices that have been around for years, waiting for us to gather together to form a reimagined education. A reimagined education is essential to prepare us for what's to come. “Over the next ten to 15 years, the adoption of automation and AI technologies will transform the workplace as people increasingly interact with ever-smarter machines. These technologies, and that human-machine interaction, will bring numerous benefits in the form of higher productivity, GDP growth, improved corporate performance, and new prosperity, but they will also change the skills required of human workers” (Bughin et al., 2018). We can embrace the skills required to stay active and relevant throughout the 21st century and onwards into the future of mankind. The opportunity that we have in the face of a pandemic that is yet to be conquered, is a challenge that we can become prepared to meet with a new wave of empowered learners.

Asoodeh, M., & Zarepour, M. (2012, May 16). The impact of student-centered learning on academic achievement and social skills. SciVerse ScienceDirect.

Bughin, J., Hazan, E., Lund, S., Dahlström, P., Wiesinger, A., & Subramaniam, A. (2018, May 23). Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce. McKinsey Global Institute.

Common Sense Media. (2019, October 28). The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2019. Common Sense Media.

Croth, M. (2019). More Than a Major. Georgia State University Magazine, 1(Summer 2019), 28-33.

Kennedy, M. (2015, March 6). Student-Centered vs. Teacher-Centered Learning. The Synapse.

Paturel, A. (2014, April 30). Game Theory: The Effects of Video Games on the Brain. Brain & Life.

Riddle, T. (2016, February 3). Improving Schools Through Design Thinking. Edutopia.

Seif, E. (2018, November 16). Dimensions Of Deep Learning: Levels Of Engagement And Learning. ASCD In-Service.

Victoria State Government. (2020, June 02). Feedback and Reporting. Victoria State Government Education and Training.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page