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Introducing Game-Based Elements to Motivate and Engage Learners – Featuring Roger Munger

Motivating students is often talked about in terms of horses and water or carrots and sticks. Incentives always will, and should, be a part of motivation discussions. Roger Munger, professor of English, motivates students by using a gamified approach in his technical communication classes and offers students an audacious amount of choice over the assignments they will complete. A game-based approach with an emphasis on student choice — very similar to Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks — offers instructors a way to structure a course with some consistency and still meet varied student needs and learning expectations. Munger offers not only choice of the topics of the assignments and mode of expression (e.g., paper, podcast, video, presentation, graphic, etc.), but choice over whether to do certain assignments at all.

Choice Can Be Paralyzing Or Empowering

The first assignment students do in both of Munger’s courses is to select the assignments they intend to complete in the course — they can revise this game plan as the semester progresses. Munger explained, “They were like, ‘I get choice? I don’t have to do all of these?'”

In his English 515 Visual Rhetoric and Information Design course, for example, students work on creating a video and an infographic. Then they work with real-world clients who supply students with an audience, purpose, context, and raw data. The students use all of that information to tell “data stories” — videos, infographics, or articles — for the client. Within each of the projects, students can choose how far down the road they will go towards a finished product. For the video assignment, one student might stop at the storyboard, another at the rough cut, and a third at a fully realized, beautifully edited and captioned final cut. This makes sense because, as Munger said, “Students can still meet the core objectives of the video assignment which focus on visual rhetoric without producing polished, fully-accessible videos — though they would be rewarded for doing so; that’s where the higher points are.”

“I absolutely loved the way assignments were structured. I really felt like I had my own control in the course.” Student, ENGL 519 Leadership of Writing Teams

One issue is that too much choice can lead to anxiety and dissatisfaction, a phenomenon popularized by the book The Paradox of Choice (Schwartz, 2004). To avoid that pitfall, Munger doesn’t provide students with unlimited choice; some assignments are mandatory. Another issue is that some students just want to be told what to do. Munger got around these problems by creating two student personas and giving a sample learning path for each persona. If students don’t want a highly customized course, they can just follow one of the pre-set paths for the persona that most appeals to them.

“This is by far the best online course that I have ever taken.” Student, ENGL 519 Leadership of Writing Teams

For students who thrive on choice and customization, Munger puts enough structure and game (course) rules in place so students’ choices don’t lead them to develop gaps in their skills or to avoid one assignment altogether. Students cannot skip steps, for example, by completing a final cut of a video without first completing the scaffolded assignments that precede it (proposal, script, storyboard, rough cut). Furthermore, after practicing their skills during the first video assignment, they can do it in a more authentic context: for a real client.

“I wanted to thank you for such an informative, interesting, and engaging class. I appreciate how it was treated more like an actual working environment with practical applications than a class where we get lectured at then tested. I also appreciated the amount of freedom and customization with the course materials, while still maintaining a very clear goal of what we were meant to learn. It was incredibly refreshing as a student.” Student, ENGL 416 User-Centered Design Principles

What Kinds Of Choices Are Available?

Here is a sample of some of the options students can choose in Munger’s courses:

  • Complete a small number of big (high point) assignments, or a lot of small, low-stakes assignments.
  • Offset a lower-than-expected grade early in the semester by revising their game plan and completing more assignments than originally planned.
  • Decide how they prefer to participate in class discussions: asynchronous text-based discussion, asynchronous video-based discussions, or a combination of both.
  • Attend optional live meetings via Zoom with the instructor and other students.
  • Work alone or collaborate with other students on some assignments and get rewarded for their teamwork.
  • Choose which aspects of their learning they will reflect on and whether they will develop a professional development plan.

How He Supports Many Students Working On Different Things

  • “Quick Bytes” emails sent on Monday mornings list the top three tasks to complete that week, a timely mini-lesson (e.g., how to talk to clients, manage expectations, etc. during a client project), and either a quick exercise (e.g., sketch a solution to this user experience problem) or a quick reflection journal entry (e.g., What traits, values, and behaviors define a team leader?).
  • Learning materials that cover broad principles that are applicable in many contexts.
  • Announcements released as needed.
  • Asynchronous Flipgrid discussions.
  • Synchronous — and optional — Zoom meetings with the professor and/or with other classmates.

Tips for Introducing Gamified Elements in a Course

  • Understand that it is an iterative process and takes a few sections to align course design with your student audience and your teaching style.
  • Pick three to five  high-level learning objectives to focus your students’ choices.
  • Brainstorm many assignments, see how each might fit with those objectives, and be willing to try a few new assignments. This also sometimes helps generate new — and better — course learning objectives.
  • Start with the high-value, highest level, polished assignment and then consider how smaller, lower-stake assignments could be completed to help lead students to be successful with the final assignment, if they opt to do it.
  • Look at your course objectives and decide which assignments are required and which could be optional or bonus assignments.
  • Plan for the time it will take to design and build your course. Munger estimates his fully online, accessible, asynchronous, gamified English 519 Leadership of Writing Teams took 160 hours to plan, develop, build in a LMS platform, and write all course content. That was a brand new class that had never existed before. However, he says, “I can do the gamified approach quickly now because I’m used to it.”
  • Plan to grade and provide quick feedback on several short assignments that not every student completes instead of one to two  big, high-value ones. A gamified approach can mean writing many  smaller possible assignments instead of just three big ones that everyone has to do, for example. This might slightly increase your grading time per course, depending on the amount and type of feedback you provide.

In his visual rhetoric class, Munger has students who have heard of infographics but know nothing about them as well as students who create infographics for a living. Students want to go into very different areas of technical communication after graduation. When dealing with a diverse group of learners with different backgrounds and goals, flexibility and choice are  paramount. The approach Munger offers is able to stimulate and sustain his students’ motivation to learn, despite the different places they are starting from.


For help designing and teaching a gamified online, contact eCampus Center and request a consultation.

Article Credit

Thanks to professor Roger Munger and Greg Snow, the eCampus instructional design consultant who worked with Munger to design the ENGL 515 course.


Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model approach. New York: Springer.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.