a visual about gamification in education

The impact of gamification on learning and instruction: A systematic review of empirical evidence


The article “The impact of gamification on learning and instruction: A systematic review of empirical evidence” by Zaubyddub et al (2020) represented my continued interest in trying to better understand the value and impact of game-based learning.  

The Introduction provided a robust overview of the current literature and terminology as it attempted to provide an objective overview of the field of gamification – an approach that is built on constructivist learning or experiential learning. “Game-based learning was defined as the use of gamified content as an e-learning technique to meet instructional goals.  The scientific definition of gamification was defined as the process of applying game elements to non-game contexts.  The premise of gamification is that the use of elements such as levels, points, badges, etc., encourage learners to achieve greater goal orientation through the practices of learning by repetition, engaging in collaboration, stimulating a fun and friendly competition environment with peers as well reinforcing the overall goal orientation of learning. 

This article supported the premise that gamification is being accepted as an effective learning strategy as it can create highly engaging learning environments.  The authors share that one of their motivations in evaluating the educational aspects of gamification is to provide a better understanding of the nature and process of how these approaches contribute to learning.  They hope to identify a baseline on which future research could be based to address any inconsistencies, knowledge gaps, and enhance the theoretical foundations of this approach. 

Review of Analytical Methods

Systematic reviews, by definition, provide a snapshot of the literature supporting a given set of objectives.  In this review, the authors evaluated studies published in the Web of Science database from 2016 to 2019 using thematic and content analysis with a focus on educational technology.  They listed two objectives for this approach:

  • “To evaluate the existing gamified methodological approaches, theoretical models, gaming platforms and apps, game mechanics and learning outcomes ascribed to the existing state of the art literature on gamification research
  • To explore future research avenues in the areas of advancing gamified methodological approaches, theoretical models, gaming platforms and apps, game mechanics, and learning outcomes.”

The following research questions were operationalized based on the above research objectives:

  1. What methodological approaches have been used in gamification research?
  2. What are the underlying theoretical models used in gamification research?
  3. What platforms or apps have been used in gamification research?
  4. What are the participants’ levels of education and the most common game mechanics?
  5. What are the potential effects of implementing gamification in various fields of education?
  6. What are the unexplored future research avenues in gamification research?

Web of Science (Insights Journal Citation) was identified as the premier bibliographic database, which includes sources from ScienceDirect, EBSCOhost Web, Emerald Insight, Taylor and Francis Online, Wiley Online Library and SpringerLink. Articles not focused on learning and instruction as well as books were removed from the analysis.  Ultimately 46 articles were selected for further review and analysis to gauge thematic and content trends in the field of educational technology.


The authors summarized the analysis across several different elements.

First, they looked at the learning theories used to support gamification. With respect to the established theories of learning, most studies used “self-determination theory” as the underlying theoretical framework, suggesting that satisfying a student’s psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness reinforces intrinsic motivation.  The second most referenced theory was “flow theory” which suggests that students immersed in a challenging activity can experience “flow” when they reach peak performance.  The third recognized model was goal-setting theory.  Table 3 in the article lists 23 different learning theories/models that were identified within these studies.

Next, the authors evaluated the gamification platforms and apps in use, the participants’ levels of education and game elements used, the gamification impacts on learning and instruction, motivation and engagement, learning achievement, interaction, and social connection.  Lastly, they evaluated the challenges and barriers of gamification, which is where I will focus my attention for now since I’m always intrigued by the “what’s next” question. 

Some of the barriers that they identified included:

  • Extrinsic motivators such as virtual trophies or points do not guarantee that a student will be or remain engaged
  • The use of game elements did not develop or enhance a student’s sense of community. 
  • The use of game elements did not significantly increase a student’s competence, their need for satisfaction and intrinsic motivation, suggesting that gamification is not always appropriate for all types of content.  
  • The success of gamification elements depends on how the selected game matches the specific learning objectives and content of the curriculum.
  • Of course, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.  There is always a question as to whether or not game elements are motivational to learning or to elements of enjoyment rather than a combined goal of learning and fun. 


This was a rich article with lots of data that I can continue to revisit in the future.  There are a few things that I found to be of key interest at this point in my journey.

Recommendations for future research include: 

  • Evaluating gamification elements across multiple subjects
  • Identify the theoretical foundations of gamification in education
  • Conduct longitudinal studies to examine the effects of gamification across timescales and spaces
  • Evaluate the effect of gamification for primary and secondary levels as well as higher education. 
  • Explore how the concepts of gamification can be implemented in a low-tech environment. 


While I believe I have more work to do on understanding the differences between gamification and game-based elements, I agreed with many of the authors’ conclusions, probably because I share the same teaching philosophies and similar biases.  Technology is only one tool in the instructor’s toolbox and success comes from knowing when to apply the appropriate tool for the given instructional design.

I found myself in hearty agreement with their concluding sentence: “The best method of teaching is one that motivates and engages students in learning, and in this review study, gamification instruction was shown to achieve these positive outcomes.”  

And, yet, like the paper, I am still left with a number of my own questions:

  • Which methods of gamification have the most effective learning outcomes?
  • Is it the newness of the technology or the technology itself that assists in motivating one to learn and if so, does a student learn more?
  • Are the learning outcomes the ones that the teacher desired or what the student desired?
  • Could the student take the learning beyond the game and if so, then how?  Would the game only reinforce a given concept or could it be used to create more expansive thinking? 
  • How does create and co-create fit into a gamification approach?

I consider myself to be a connectivist at heart so it is important to me that I evaluate the connections for the 5 articles I’ve reviewed for this class.  The collection of five articles have touched on aspects of gamification as a learning theory, evaluating the effectiveness in classroom vice online learning, the effects of creating video-based modeling examples on learning and transfer, building communities in online courses, and this final assignment of looking at the impact of gamification on learning.  I would observe that as I spend more time with the pedagogies, I appear to be moving away from what I perceived to be a preference for the connectivism construct to a preference for using a constructivist approach as my own teaching skills evolve.   An interesting journey indeed. 


Zainuddin, Z., Chu, S. K. W., Shujahat, M., & Perera, C. J. (2020). The impact of gamification on learning and instruction: A systematic review of empirical evidence. Educational Research Review, 30. https://doi-org.uaf.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2020.100326

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