Just Add Points: How to Create Engaging Learning Games Out of Just About Anything

Aug 30, 2023

By: Aly Medina, Teacher-Tutor at TbT

You stayed up late perfecting each component of your new lesson, praying that the copier will work the next morning. Good news — it does, and you take it as a sign it will be a great day. Ten minutes into the new lesson, though, you notice one student yawn and another counting ceiling tiles. Eager to check for understanding, you pose a question that should be an easy answer, but get nothing but crickets. 

When you’re in a situation like this — and we all have been! — Remember: Just add points.

Creating a game (with scorekeeping and prizes) related to the content increases student engagement and content mastery. With some creativity, advance planning, and consistency, you can regularly implement engaging learning games that produce improved results in students’ academic progress. Here’s how.

1. Prepare your scoreboard

First, find a convenient place in your classroom to mark down points. If you are in a physical classroom, this can be a taped-off area of your board, or it could be a large laminated piece of paper taped to the wall in a special place. If you are teaching virtually, create an area of the screen where you mark down points. A scoreboard does not need to be anything fancy. A simple drawn table with the student or group name and an area for points is sufficient. Keeping scoreboards relatively consistent reduces the time spent explaining the rules and setup of each game.

2. Build your teams

Next, it’s important to mix it up in terms of team groupings. Some games can be played individually, some can be played with various partners, and some can be played with a small group of 3-4 students. Providing diverse groupings keeps things fair and enjoyable. It gives individual opportunities to students who enjoy working alone, provides opportunities for group wins to those who perform lower academically in that subject and encourages socialization and teamwork with many other members of the class.

3. Plan partner pages

Creating partner pages at the beginning of the school year or tutoring session is an excellent way to immediately get organized for games. Partner pages are paper or digital sheets where students and/or teachers can fill in blanks to select partners they will work with periodically. For example, 

  • Create partner pages with seasonal names (“summer partner pairings,” “winter partner pairings,” etc.).
  • Print out pages with pictures of 5 different animals, each with a space to write in a partner’s name. The students then take time to go around and ask others if they want to be one of their partners, find a willing person who has the same empty space on the partner sheet, and write each others’ names into that animal’s namespace. The teacher collects the completed partner papers, makes a nice spreadsheet listing all of the partnerships, and returns the papers to the students to keep in a special place.
  • For small groups of 3-4, it is best to plan those groupings the day before, or on the spot, based on attendance, behavior, and whatever else may be going on that day. If you would like to prepare different small group teams ahead of time as well, it’s advised to change the groupings each grading period. 

4. Individual participation

If you’re in the physical classroom, you may want to project a simple spreadsheet scoreboard with each child’s initials or first name. You could also make a poster with small envelopes for each student and place colorful popsicle sticks into their envelopes as they earn points. When teaching virtually, create a scoreboard by making a simple table and incorporating it into an everyday platform, like ClassDojo.

When tracking points proves too cumbersome, create your own Kahoot, which does the job of point scoring, winner rankings, and can be used in-person or virtually. One pro tip for Kahoot is to require students to use their real first name so that you can track their understanding.

5. Picking prizes

Implementing gamified learning does not require tons of pricey prizes. In fact, free prizes exist all around us.

First, take a look around your classroom. Do you have any special places to sit? Are there certain classroom jobs that the students love to have? Does your class love bringing in items for show and tell? All of these things can be used as prizes. 

Actual prizes are effective sometimes too, so ask your family, friends, and staff and ask for any/all small “previously owned” toys, cool writing utensils, small decorations, etc. People love a good excuse to clean out that drawer or closet, and picturing the smiles on your students’ faces will give them the motivation to do it. 

Most schools do not allow candy as prizes, and it can be insensitive to students experiencing food insecurity, so it is not recommended to use candy or food as prizes.

Virtually, prizes can be more challenging to implement. Try creating an interactive Google Slides, PowerPoint, or Genially where students can select a prize from numbered boxes. They select and click on a box and get to “keep” the digital prize revealed from that box. Digital prizes can be images of cool toys they like. If you are really tech-savvy, have your students each create their own “virtual toy box” where they can place all of their virtual prizes. For more challenging games, the prizes can be actual privileges, like showing their pet to the group or choosing the brain break song.

From a distribution standpoint, if you want to streamline the individual scorekeeping and prize awarding process, keep rolling scoreboards each week and tally them up on Fridays. This creates efficiency by tallying points and giving prizes only once per week. You may even be pleasantly surprised that your Friday attendance improves. Also, if you have some students who struggle with competitive feelings, this situation only arises at one predictable time per week.

6. Maintaining friendly competition

It’s important to remember that many of your ultra-competitive students are extremely motivated by competitive games, and will experience bigger emotions after games, both highs and lows. It is easy to become discouraged and want to give up if students cry or become upset after the first few games. However, if you practice the following strategies, you can support those ultra-competitive students, along with the rest of the class, and make learning games a positive experience for all. 

  • Before the games begin, set clear expectations in writing and ask students for verbal agreement. This way, if a student has a complaint, you can refer back to the visual rules displayed.
  • Participation prizes can help every student stay involved. Some students, especially diverse learners, may feel like giving up after they respond incorrectly to a few questions, lowering their morale and frustrating others. Consistently repeat how EVERY learner will earn something for full participation. (For example, after a game, the winner gets a big prize, the 2nd and 3rd place winners get smaller prizes, and every student who participates until the end gets 1 or 2 individual points.) This is generally effective, as long as the students feel the participation prize is “worth it.”
  • While participation prizes are great, it is important to recognize winners in a special way in order to keep the motivation high for learning game effort and participation. If you notice you have certain students who haven’t experienced any type of a win in a long time, you may want to include an occasional game that is more about chance/luck or a game based on a skill they excel at, to give them the taste of a win and keep motivation and morale high.
  • The conclusion of a game and prize time are often dreaded moments for teachers because there may be student tears and frustration. Normalizing upset students’ feelings by sharing a story about a time you got upset about losing can be helpful. Gently reminding the class that everyone wins and loses at different times and reminding students of previous wins and future scheduled games can be helpful.
  • You can both energize and stabilize the emotions of your ultra-competitive students by consistently and frequently playing a variety of fair learning games with different groupings. If students understand they will have many other scheduled chances to win, the stakes will be lower and they will be better able to calm their strong emotions after a loss.

Remember, the student who almost cries after he loses a game may also be the student who is the most motivated by learning games. Don’t give up on games altogether because of a few tears.“Just add points.” Coming full circle, let’s imagine how these strategies would work in the classroom we entered at the start of this post. Our friend in the back has completed her counting of the ceiling tiles. (There are 57.) Thinking on your feet, you add, “So class, as soon as we review these three problems together, we will play a game in teams with our table groups.” Eyes perk up. Hands shoot up into the air. 

After explaining the specific problem types you will quiz them on during the game, you notice more active listening and participation. One group says they are going to select the “choose your own seat” option if they win. Another group announces they will choose a hat day if they win.

During a quick transition, you kneel down to a competitive student and whisper, “You’re going to do great, and if your group doesn’t win today, you will have another chance to win a game later this week.” You quickly write down the rules of the game, explain scoring, and provide your behavior expectations. Students get visibly excited, huddle up with their groups, and put forth a lot of effort to respond correctly to each problem.

Since you know that certain students need more time to think, you offer a point to each group that responds correctly within a reasonable timeframe, while the first group to answer correctly gets a bonus point. Sometimes it gets a little too loud and you take a moment of silence to calm everyone down. But, noisy or not, the kids are actively learning. They are engaging with the content and showing improvement. They are having…fun.

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