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Improve Failures, Completion and Grades with Gamification

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Dr. Jared Chapman  

In this experimental study, we demonstrate that a gamified course overlay can improve failures, completion and grades — even for lower-performing teachers. The tools developed for this study draw on principles of behavioral economics, motivation theory and learning cognition theory to help students want to improve and connect with teachers.

Audience: Chief technology officers/superintendents/school board members, Principals/head teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
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Participant accounts, software and other materials: These websites do not need to be installed, and an account is not required, for the presentation, but they provide useful information.

Topic: Innovation in higher education
Subject area: Higher education, Not applicable
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
  • Design authentic learning activities that align with content area standards and use digital tools and resources to maximize active, deep learning.
  • Explore and apply instructional design principles to create innovative digital learning environments that engage and support learning.

Proposal summary


This study draws on principles of behavioral economics, motivation theory, and learning cognition theory to design information systems that help students WANT to improve and CONNECT with their teachers.


We use a quasi-experimental design with a treatment and control group. Data was drawn from four sections of a freshman/sophomore level Technology Management course at a large open enrollment university (n=193). T-tests were used to identify significant differences in academic outcomes between part- and full-time teachers both with and without a gamified course overlay.

The study evaluated the following six hypothesis:

Evaluate if there is a difference in academic outcomes between part- and full-time instructors.
H1: A course without an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will have significantly more students who fail than a course without an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.
H2: A course without an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will have significantly more students who drop out than a course without an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.
H3: A course without an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will have significantly fewer students who earn a B- or above grade than a course without an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.

Evaluate if using an EEIS reduces the difference in academic outcomes between part- and full-time instructors.
H4: A course with an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will not have significantly more students who fail than a course with an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.
H5: A course with an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will not have significantly more students who drop out than a course with an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.
H6: A course with an EEIS taught by a part-time instructor will not have significantly fewer students who earn a B- or above grade than a course with an EEIS taught by an experienced full-time instructor.


The purpose of this study was to examine possible differences in academic outcomes between part- and full-time instructors, with and without the use of an EEIS. Without an EEIS, students in the part-time instructor's course sections demonstrated significantly higher failure rates (a 143.8% increase) and dropout rates (a 110.4% increase) with significantly fewer students scoring a B- or higher (39.8% decrease) when compared to students in the course sections taught by a full-time instructor. These findings support H1, H2, and H3. The effect size for each of these observations is in the moderate range.
These findings do not support research that grades in courses taught by part-time instructors are higher than those taught by full-time instructors (Ran & Xu, 2017; Ran & Xu, 2018; Xu, 2019). This is possibly because assignments and exams in this study were held consistent across course sections, and rigor and requirements were not manipulated (Benjamin, 2002, 2003).
Students in sections taught by the part-time instructor without an EEIS had fewer B- or above grades, suggesting less understanding of the course content. Assuming that mastery of content (an intrinsic motivator) is linked to grades (an extrinsic motivator), students may have lost interest when their effort did not result in expected rewards (e.g., see McEvoy, 2011). It is concerning that students in the part-time instructor’s course without an EEIS had significantly lower academic outcomes. This could impact retention and continuation in a major as indicated by previous research (Ran & Xu, 2017, 2018; Bettinger & Long, 201; Jaeger & Hinz, 2008).
With an EEIS, when comparing part- and full-time instructors, there was no significant difference in failure and dropout rates or in the number of students scoring a B- or higher in the course. In fact, with an EEIS, the failure and dropout rates were statistically identical for part- and full-time instructor courses. These findings support H4, H5, and H6. When using an EEIS (compared with not using an EEIS), the part-time instructor showed a 62.1% decrease in failures, a 61.4% decrease in dropouts, and a 41.7% increase in the number of students scoring a B- or higher in the course. We are unaware of other interventions that yield such large improvements in academic performance. This suggests that using an EEIS such as Delphinium may compensate for part-time instructors’ limitations of expertise, time, or rewards that can have a negative impact on students’ academic outcomes.
The EEIS had only a minimal impact on failure rates (7.7% decrease) and dropout rates (18.8% decrease) for the full-time instructor. This suggests there is a ceiling effect for the improvements that an EEIS can make in student performance. This may be because experienced instructors are already doing the kinds of things that an EEIS does, such as motivating students, tracking grades, and providing feedback about progress. The role of task feedback in increasing intrinsic motivation is supported by previous research (e.g., see Debnath et al., 2007, Garaus et al., 2016, McEvoy, 2011). Additionally, full-time instructors have more time to dedicate to students outside of class than part-time instructors and more rewards for doing so (Jaeger & Hinz, 2008, Jaeger & Eagan, 2009, 2011; Ran & Xu, 2017).
When the full-time instructor used an EEIS, the number of students that scored a B- or above actually decreased by 2.8% and there were fewer A grades when compared to not using an EEIS. After interviewing the instructor and reviewing responses to qualitative, open-ended questions from students, we speculate that this is because Delphinium makes progress very apparent, and students know when to stop working to achieve the grade they desire. An explanation for this may be related to the extrinsic motivation of grades; students may have been extrinsically motivated by the features of Delphinium, such as the grade tracker, and with the platform itself rather than being intrinsically motivated by the content (e.g., see Deci et al., 1999; Mallin & Pullins, 2009; McEvoy, 2011; Morgan-Thomas & Dudau, 2019). Non-EEIS versions of the course did not have this clear indication of course progress and high-performing students continued to work, we speculate, because they were unsure of their final grade, or perhaps because they were more intrinsically motivated, and wanted to ensure that they cleared the threshold for the grade they desired. This suggests that satisficing students will stop working on assignments when the EEIS interface tells them they have reached their goal, or possibly that the grade tracker feature encouraged performance-based on extrinsic motivation that did not sustain students' interest once they had achieved an acceptable grade (Bain, 2004; Deci et al., 1999; Mallin & Pullins, 2009; McEvoy, 2011). The cafeteria style course design, which offered students a choice of assignments, should have strengthened interest and motivation for both sections (Debnath et al., 2007; Dobrow et al., 2011), however choice alone resulted in significantly lower outcomes in the part-time instructor course with no EEIS. We recommend that courses using an EEIS consider ways to encourage satisficing students to persist to course completion. This might be done, for example, by having a relatively large number of points in the final assignment that students need to earn to improve their grade.


Using adjunct and other types of part-time instructors will likely remain a prevalent practice in higher education management courses. Given that using part-time instructors can have a negative impact on student graduation and persistence in a field of study, it is important to identify ways we can augment part-time instructors’ performance. In this study we introduced the concept of an educational engagement information system (EEIS) designed to help students WANT to perform and to give teachers tools for monitoring and communicating with their students. We demonstrated that when part-time instructors use an EEIS, it can result in significantly lower students’ failure and dropout rates and an increase in the rate of students earning a B- or above; and bring their students’ performance to parity with the performance of students taught by a full-time instructor.


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Dr. Jared Chapman, Utah Valley University

Dr. Chapman is a researcher and educational technologist. He has been developing gamification platforms and publishing gamification research since 2012. He has 22 years experience facilitating education and training development as a coach, trainer, manager, and professor. His career focus has been creating environments where people can be effective and successful. His broad work experience and education (including work as a general manager, production manager, instructional designer, technology specialist, and trainer) allow him to engage multiple perspectives when designing solutions to educational issues.

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