Move over, Mario

Professor invents game to engage students in learning

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Each semester in Szymon Machajewski’s computing course, students set out on a journey to complete missions and fight enemies, such as procrastination and trolls living under the Little Mac Bridge.

The students aren’t fighting trolls in a literal sense, but the mission is one of several scenarios played out in Machajewski’s Introduction to Computing course (CIS 150). The course is taken by students in various majors like business, nursing and engineering to discover the depth of modern technology and to learn tools like Excel and Access.

Machajewski, an affiliate instructor in the School of Computing and Information Systems, uses a unique teaching pedagogy called gamification to engage his students.

“I strive to make my teaching a game worth playing,” Machajewski said. “Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, like a college course. It helps students track successes and failures, and allows instructors to create an individual path of learning for their students.”

graphic of computer gaming

To summarize, playing games helps people develop critical and cognitive thinking. Games prepare the mind to learn, he said.

Machajewski uses gamification to teach technology concepts and practical computing, a skill set he said many students lack despite their upbringing in a digital world.

“Research shows that students are quite adept at social media, but not when it comes to using technology in a business setting,” he said. “In this Intro to Computing course, I hope to help students feel good about growing into technology.”

Machajewski’s research on the impact of gamification led him to develop a short- and long-game theory. He said in order for gamification to be effective, the course must include gameful design of lectures and thoughtful design of the semester-long student journey. Short games include a puzzle or one-minute paper; long-game elements include a large project or a student’s progress throughout the semester. Near the end of the semester, students can use their points in various ways.

Sword and shield, wizard, viking ship and crossed sword icons

His course follows the Hero’s Journey, a storytelling cycle that includes a call to adventure (new semester), a meeting with a mentor (professor) and the final conflict (final exam). To play the game, his students use Blackboard, a course management system, and a mobile app designed by Machajewski. The app, called CIS150, received a patent and is available for iPhones and Androids.

The game includes several elements: missions are extra assignments — like an Excel practice or database project —and students earn experience points when they complete them, which can be traded for course privileges. The more missions students complete, the more likely Machajewski will release a new feature, like the late assignment makeup feature. Students track their experience points and peace-of-mind points (extra credit) throughout the semester on the app.

“I try to keep the game as far away from the actual grades as possible.” he said. “That way, grades are just milestones and not the actual goal, which is to feel like you’ve learned and accomplished something by the end of the semester. The different features make the course fun for the instructor and students since engagement is reciprocal in nature.”

Machajewski’s interest in gamification stems from his experience with Robert Baden- Powell’s scouting method to create games and hands-on activities for the exploration of new skills without the focus on traditional lecturing.

“I felt so engaged when I was on a mission to earn a new badge. There were failures and accomplishments, but I was learning while not realizing I was learning. Earning a badge was all about playing a game to learn new skills, demonstrate them and show improvement,” he said.

Machajewski, from Poland, has been recognized for his work in gamification. In 2016, he was selected by Blackboard as a winner of the Most Inclusive Classrooms in the U.S. Contest. In 2017, he was named a recipient of a Blackboard Catalyst Award for the CIS150 course in the Exemplary Courses category. Several colleagues at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois are using Machajewski’s game in their introductory courses.

He said playing games builds empathy. Jane McGonigal, a leader in gamification research, found that people who play games tend to display the best of themselves.

“They are more likely to help others, sacrifice themselves and build connections. Basically, playing games is good for us,” Machajewski said.