Gen Z Takeover: How colleges are using gamification to engage students

Editor’s note: This article is the first installment of a new column on how Generation Z’s arrival is changing higher ed.

Beginning this past fall, California State University, Dominguez Hills students who engage in everyday college activities like joining a student group or checking into the mental health center have been able to cash in their experiences for tangible rewards.

Researchers hope the project will encourage first-year retention by incentivizing students to learn about available resources and develop healthy habits that will make them more likely to stay in college. To do so, they’re using gamification, or the use of game-like features such as point-scoring and leaderboards, to encourage student participation.

It’s a strategy marketers have tapped to reach a wider audience, especially with tech-savvy millennials and , who grew up playing games on their cell phones, laptops and other devices. And while games are popular among both generations, there’s some evidence to support that Gen Z responds particularly well to the technique.

Gamification has caught on in workplace training, too, with nearly half of Gen Z members surveyed in a recent report saying they prefer to learn through gameful approaches. Responding to those preferences can be key for colleges and universities, as members of Gen Z – who were born – make up the new college-age crowd.

As gamification grows more popular, higher ed has also been exploring it as a way to encourage student success. And Dominguez Hills is one of several colleges experimenting with the strategy to encourage students to explore campus life outside the classroom.

“Part of the reason why we created (the online tools) is to try and meet students where they are,” said Zo ë Corwin, a University of Southern California associate professor of research and director of the project. “(We’re) capitalizing on some of the things they’re used to and that resonate with them.

Researchers have developed several badges that students at Dominguez Hills can earn that intend to help them stick with college. Among them are reading up on financial tips and studying for finals. So far, about 164 first-year students have completed at least one badge as part of the campaign.

It’s just one such program colleges are testing to encourage positive behavior beyond the classroom. “Universities are slowly beginning to catch up to students,” Corwin said. “We’re kind of slow adopters, but I think there are some pretty innovative things going on.”

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for gamification, meaning colleges’ approach to the tool has been varied. Whether an institution awards prizes, lets students make their own avatars or launches a leaderboard to encourage competition depends on its own needs and tastes.

Ball State University, for instance, had a specific student population in mind when it developed an app with gamification features: Pell Grant recipients.

The university launched its solution, an app called Ball State Achievements, in 2014.

The app offered Pell students points for completing a wide array of activities, including studying at the library, going to the gym and registering early for classes.Points are awarded on a tiered-system, meaning students can earn more points for high-impact achievements like making the dean’s list than they would for an easier activity, such as attending a football game.

Users can get even more points by completing activities in a group, with up to a 100% bonus if an achievement is completed with five or more people.

“Students have talked to me about how they would be in their dorm, (and) they wouldn’t know what to do on their first day here in college,” said Scott Reinke, the coordinator for Ball State Achievements. “They’d grab their roommate and then they could get on the app and do their own little campus tour as a group, earning all the location achievements together.”

Small encouragements like this can add up for students. Social isolation can be a contributing factor to a student’s decision to drop out of college, while a sense of community has been linked to their perceived academic success.

Moreover, student response has been largely positive, with students nabbing a total of more than 300,000 achievements over the last five years, Reinke said. Although the app was originally open to just Pell Grant recipients, the university now offers it to all incoming freshmen, who can continue using it their sophomore year. About students 2,700 are currently using the app, he added.

Reinke attributes some of that success to Gen Z’s high levels of digital literacy.

“New students and young people now, they’ve grown up playing games, they understand the language of games and they understand the language of the design that goes into games,” he said. “There’s not that learning curve that’s maybe elsewhere, and it doesn’t end up being a stopping point for a lot of students.”

Colleges aren’t using gamification strategies only to boost retention. At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, officials launched a program with gameful elements to cultivate soft skills and a habit of lifelong learning in students.

The goal is to earn 50,000 points, at which point students earn a distinction on their transcripts to note they completed the program, along with the opportunity to give a presentation at a showcase in front of faculty, students and employers.

“It’s a way to engage the students in something that could be kind of dry,” said Laurie Sutch, executive director of Talent Gateway.

Since its launch in 2016, about 22 students have completed the program, Sutch said, adding that about 10% of the university’s student body, or nearly 1,000 students, are currently participating. Some students are even aiming to earn 100,000 points – twice the amount needed to complete the program.

“Suddenly we have these students who are going well above and beyond what they’re required to do to get the designation on their transcripts because it’s fun, because it’s engaging (and) because they’re learning something from it,” Sutch said.

Although gamification in higher ed has proven popular with Gen Z, it can be used to reach other generations, too.

More than of the college-going population is over the age of 25, and researchers predict this group will grow much faster than traditional-aged college students.

However, older students tend to have different needs than many of their younger classmates, including families and full-time jobs to juggle along with their academic responsibilities.

With that in mind, Purdue University Global set out to create a program that had enough flexibility to work around its students’ schedules, said Jennifer Lasater, the online college’s vice president of employer and career services. So in 2016, when the college was still known as Kaplan University, it added gamification features into its career services network.

Now, students can build an avatar, earn badges and compete with other students for top spots on the university’s public leaderboard. Points are awarded for activities that help participants hone their job search skills, such as by polishing their resume or building a larger social media presence.

Unlike some other college programs with gamification elements, Purdue Global does not incentivize students with material prizes.

“We’ve played with that idea, but what we wanted to do is make sure people were doing these activities because they intrinsically wanted to learn and grow,” Lasater said. Students receive feedback from the university’s career services team and earn badges they can collect and share on their social media profiles.

Lasater said she hasn’t noticed a difference in interest among Purdue Global’s students based on age but rather on time and availability. Information technology and business students, for instance, tend to be more drawn to the program, while those who are already working in their field of study, such as nursing students, may not have the time to devote to participation.

What’s essential, she added, is that the game elements are worthwhile for students.

“You have to make sure they’re getting something out of it instead of just basically getting a sticker for completing a form,” she said. “It’s about that intrinsic motivational value. … That’s why we did it, and that’s what’s important to us.”

Correction: This article has been updated to include the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education and Get Schooled’s role in the Charge On campaign.


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