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Learning is fun! Gaming makes for motivated students and better learning outcomes

Published on 25.5.2021
Tampere University
Harry Potter -maailmaan tarinallistettu koulu Yhdysvalloissa.
A school storified with the world of Harry Potter. Photograph: Isabella Aura / Tampere University
Coronavirus restrictions forced schools to adopt distance learning and to take a huge digital leap in a short amount of time. Researchers at Tampere University see the gamification of education and game-based approaches as a solution to many learning challenges. For example, well-chosen games have increased pupils’ motivation to learn languages. Game-based approaches are stimulating in both distance and contact learning and not limited to digital games.

In distance learning, teachers had their backs against the wall: in a tight schedule they had to find effective ways to reach all students and implement the curriculum. The high level of digitalisation in Finnish schools helped, even though some teachers had to jump on board quite suddenly. The technology of remote participation was adopted nimbly, but few were able to develop teaching to meet the needs of different learners in the battle for everyday survival.

Now that teachers are used to teaching virtually and the necessary infrastructure exists, it is time to make the next move. Doctoral researchers Laura Pihkala-Posti and Isabella Aura from the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences at Tampere University believe that different games will pave the way for the next step in teaching development. Digital devices and gaming are already a significant part of pupils’ leisure.

Both researchers hold a Master of Education degree. However, Pihkala-Posti, who has earned two degrees, is a linguist at heart and teaches German especially in upper secondary school. Aura has worked as an early childhood education teacher. They have experimented with gamification in real everyday teaching situations.

A real-life Hogwarts environment supports learning

Before one starts to introduce game-based elements into teaching, it is important to carefully consider the learning outcomes, context, and target group. It is essential to ask whether gamification will provide added value to the planned learning content. 

According to Aura, gamification is primarily about the overall development of teaching methods and practices, not about the implementation of single game moments or the use of an application. Gamification is not the solution to all learning challenges.

Aura, who studies storification in education, emphasises the importance of working with students to shape teaching. Considering small things — such as breaking down the learning outcomes into smaller chunks, recognising skills and individual learning paths, and offering rewards — is an effective way to start gamifying teaching.

“When learners play an active role, they are able to influence their own learning. Games and gamification support creativity, goal-setting and the identification of one’s own skills,” Aura says.

In a research article published earlier this year, Aura and her co-authors examined an American school where both the physical school environment and the teaching were storified. In this real-life Hogwarts, students’ disruptive behaviour decreased, and the academic performance of low achievers improved, largely thanks to the stimulating learning environment.

At its simplest, storification can mean transforming classrooms and common spaces in a school so that the environment is inspiring, creates a sense of safety, promotes concentration, and supports participation. Through stories, students can learn to embrace the values of society.

Digital tools and gaming apps can facilitate language-learning  

Using sound, images and video to present learning materials serves a wide range of learner types.

Game based approaches can be used in a more varied way than the traditional classroom setting, for example, to promote oral language skills. Pihkala-Posti came up with a concept of project-based learning in foreign languages with the educational versions of super-popular computer games such as Minecraft, which attracted the interest of a major German educational publishing house.  

“Playing games can empower learners who have not been genuinely engaged by the regular language teaching practices at school. Using Minecraft in the German lessons of an upper secondary school got science-oriented boys excited about speaking German. It is precisely in their field that a good command of German opens doors to employment,” says Pihkala-Posti.

Another game-based approach to language learning developed by Pihkala-Posti in the ‘Active Learning Spaces’ multidisciplinary research project is the multisensory, functional Berlin Kompass language learning app, which takes students on a virtual tour of Berlin. She suggests that teachers should use simulations of real-life situations in their lessons to build bridges to realities outside the classroom.

Different applications and platforms, effective learner analytics, and personalised exercises based on them are a good way to differentiate teaching to suit different learners. Gaming environments can also provide much needed experiences of success for the weaker learners. 

“For example, pupils with dyslexia can use audio applications, while pupils who are nervous about speaking out loud or who are more reluctant to open their mouths can practice speaking in peace by recording their speech several times with an audio application before publishing anything,” Pihkala-Posti points out.  

Some students think that playing is not real learning but a sheer waste of time. On the other hand, many of them realise that learning can be fun! Motivation is the gateway to all learning.

“At best, gaming can make learners immerse themselves in the subject and forget their own limitations. This amount of concentration is conducive to learning,” says Pihkala-Posti.

Be careful with the dosage – too much gaming can deteriorate reading skills

It is easy to get an overdose of digital content. During the distance learning period, attending school, and playing practically merged in the everyday life of many children and young people.

“They sat at the same computer all day, playing games instead of participating in subjects they found boring and played games also during the breaks in distance learning. At school, the students would at least have gotten up and gone out at break time. In the evenings, they continued playing multi-player games so that they would at least somehow meet their friends,” Pihkala-Posti describes.

Games give players instant gratification which is addictive.

“Learning requires concentration and resilience, and there are no quick prizes. Extensive gaming can reduce motivation to work at school and reinforce exclusion. While gaming tends to improve English language skills, it can also undermine the skills to read longer linear texts,” Pihkala-Posti explains.

Distance teaching easily become monotonous which made many students passive. Activating games would be a good way to keep the students awake in the stream of distance learning. The same recipe also works in contact teaching.

“Short, game-based sessions are stimulating and bring variety to teaching. They can be as simple as, for example, competitions on Kahoot. However, it is the larger projects using virtual game environments that would bring real variety and added values to schoolwork,” Pihkala-Posti points out.

“A gamified learning environment is at its best when the students do not even realise that they have played a game. Achieving this level of naturalism does not happen on its own but requires enthusiasm and activity on the part of the teacher. Our role as researchers is to support their work, provide scientific knowledge about gamification and disseminate different good methods,” Aura sums up.


Laura Pihkala-Posti
+358 50 530 4188
laura.pihkala-posti [at]

Isabella Aura
+358 45 130 3407
isabella.aura [at]

Text: Anna Aatinen
Image: Isabella Aura

The gamification of education is driven by scientific research

Laura Pihkala-Posti is developing multimodal, interactive and gamified language learning concepts. These can be applied and further developed to support language learners of different ages and levels. Find out more about Pihkala-Posti’s experiences of teaching foreign languages by using game-based approaches (in English) and her ideas for learning oral language skills with Minecraft and BerlinKompass (in Finnish).

Isabella Aura’s Storification project explores the use and effects of gamification and storification in different educational contexts. Right now Aura and her research group are piloting with Yrityskylä on how a gamified learning environment could support children’s knowledge, skills and attitudes towards work, economy and society. Watch Isabella Aura summarise her research in a video (in Finnish with English subtitles).