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Dr. Bob Vitalis (Political Science) presented as a part of the first night's panel, "How Did We Get Into a Prolonged War in Iraq?". The first night of the Iraq War Teach-In, organized by Penn Faculty and Staff Against the War In Iraq, was well-attended. Credit: Shannon Jensen

Fear not, Candy Crush lovers — Penn offers a class that applies the same gaming concepts to class grading and student motivation.

A term known as gamification, which incorporates competition and game-thinking into other activities, has become a buzzword over the past couple of years with the success of apps like Foursquare. At Penn, Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor Kevin Werbach uses such motivational techniques in his classes.

“Gamification is applying design techniques of games and using them in other ways,” Werbach said. “That means figuring out how games motivate and engage people and then trying to use that to motivate people to work and learn.”

This class is taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as online through Coursera. The classes taught at Penn are set up in a flipped classroom style, such that students much watch the online lectures before class and participate in group activities during class time.

“In games, you start with zero and you build your way up, so there are a set of class activities that you can do that are worth a certain number of points," Werbach said. “There are options for different things you can do so you can go in different directions.”

Werbach doesn’t use badges and golden stars that some students might associate with preschool competition, but he does acknowledge that games offer psychological insights that aren't solely used in games, like leaderboards and other intrinsic rewards which can be translated to other areas.

Some Wharton classes can pit students against one another, which can cause divide and a lack of student cooperation, but Werbach hopes that these types of classes will foster more collaboration and individual motivation to learn.

Wharton senior Daniel Yellin enjoys the class structure, which put students in collaborative teams but grades them individually on a curve like some other Wharton classes do. He liked the idea that, if everyone put in the work, they could get an A.

“Everybody had the incentive to try their best with their group because it wasn’t on the Wharton curve,” Yellin said. “It encourage collaboration, and you felt motivated to push your teammates to do their work.”

Werbach agrees that some other classes can forget to focus on what matters in education.

“In education we don’t focus enough on motivation, we focus on content and assessment,” Werbach said. “But game thinking is much more about getting someone to start and keep going — that means thinking of the activity of an ongoing journey.”

Yellin was uncertain that this class style, which he believed took a positive spin to the typical grading system, could apply to a finance or statistics class, in which students need to understand the material on an individual basis. He was also concerned that the flipped classroom turned off some of his classmates.

“I think some people might have thought that it was childish,” Yellin said. “There were probably some people who didn’t watch the lectures online, they might have just gone through the motions.”

“Even if they did get a good grade, they didn’t get out of the class what they could have," he added.

These techniques are also taken out of the class. Werbach has consulted with large companies to help them use gamification to motivate frontline employees. He has worked with a large hotel chain create a competitive game environment to motivate the front desk staff, bell staff and others to provide the best service. He also works with other large retail companies.

Yellin agrees that these practices could be help motivate employees in work environments that can be repetitive, like in a telemarketing call center. But he does not think that they could be used in higher level jobs that often do various jobs on a daily basis.

Legal Studies 240 or "Gamification for Business," which has a cross listing with Operations and Information Management, will be offered again in the fall of 2015. 

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