Dr. Katherina Bernecker is a behavioral psychologist. She earned her doctorate on the topic of self-discipline and willpower, focusing among other things on the question of why people find it difficult to do things that they know will benefit them in the long term but are temporarily unpleasant. Furthermore, she dedicates her research to gamification and its impact on human learning behavior, among other topics. She works at the University of Zurich.
How long have you been studying the effect that gamification has on learning? What fascinates you about it in particular?
I was first introduced to the topic of gamification during my time as a postdoctoral researcher in 2017 at the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media in Tübingen, Germany. in Tübingen. There, I met Dr. Manuel Ninaus, who is doing research on gamification, and started a collaborative project with him. My background until then had been in research on motivation and I was fascinated by the effect that game elements can have on learning or performance in cognitive tasks. Particularly because, in theory, they could be used anywhere people are learning or doing cognitive work. However, I also wondered how exactly gamification improves learning and cognitive performance, that is, what the psychological processes behind it are. This question also has a direct application link: because gamification is already used in many contexts, but if we don’t understand the mode of action behind it, we may leave much of the potential of this approach “behind” or, in the worst case, produce learning environments that bring even worse learning outcomes.
In your study “No Pain, no Gain? Investigating motivational mechanisms of game elements in cognitive tasks” you explain that learning requires a cognitive effort that people instinctively shy away from. To what extent does gamification influence this?
Many current theories in motivation and cognitive psychology are based on the assumption that people only invest the cognitive effort in a (learning) task that is worthwhile. In other words, if we do not receive something in return for our mental effort, we will we will turn away from the task and toward a more rewarding alternative (e.g., daydreaming or other important tasks to do). What is “rewarding” about a task can be, on the one hand, in the task itself (so-called “activity incentives” according to Rheinberg, 1989), such as that the task is fun or yields interesting insights. But the incentives can also lie outside the task itself (so-called “purpose incentives”), for example learning to pass an exam. Our idea was that gamification primarily increases the activity incentive, i.e., the positive experience of the task itself, and thus on the motivation to stay on the task instead of looking for more rewarding alternatives. Gamified tasks, so to speak, offer a reward in the here and now in addition to the reward in the later (e.g., passing the exam). Recent research by Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University also shows that people underestimate the influence of activity incentives and tend to believe that purpose incentives such as money lead to greater persistence in tasks. However, this is not the case. In fact, activity incentives seem to have a greater impact on persistence than purpose incentives. Gamification is one way to increase activity incentives for learners.
What positive effects can gamification have on training and education? Especially with regard to long-term learning success?
Generally speaking, it can be assumed that gamification contributes to the immediate positive experience of a learning task and that people are therefore willing to stay with it and pay attention for longer. This should also lead to greater learning success in training and education in the long term. In fact, there are already studies that show the positive effect of gamification on learning success. Studies also show that people voluntarily learn or train more often when the learning tasks are gamified. If the experience of a task was positive, people are more likely to turn to this task again than if the experience was negative (e.g. boring, exhausting). This additional learning effort should also be reflected in the learning performance in the long run.
Does training with gamification elements trigger higher engagement among participants? If yes, why?
Yes, that is exactly what we discovered in our studies. We had our participants work on a fairly challenging memory task. We measured performance in the task (number of correct answers), but also engagement (number of answers given, because participants could also omit answers). We found that participants in the gamified version of the task gave more answers, i.e. were more engaged, than participants in the non-gamified version. However, we found no difference in performance. When an answer was given, it was equally likely to be correct. Thus, game elements do not improve memory per se or the retrieval of memory, but help to stay on task. This may sound trivial, but cognitive performance is often measured in such a way that it is not possible to separate these components from cognitive processing and motivation. Therefore, it was important for us to show this difference.
What kind of training is gamification particularly recommended for?
Gamification proves valuable in training that may be lengthy and lack other activity and purpose incentives. Security or compliance training, for example, is of enormous value to companies, but for the individual participant the consequences are relatively abstract and the incentive for attentive learning is therefore rather low. Even trainings where volunteer engagement would be desirable could benefit from gamification because it increases the likelihood that participants will volunteer at a higher rate.
What should be considered when planning training and education measures in a company?
It is important to provide the highest possible incentives for training and education. These incentives can, as mentioned, be in the training or the training itself (e.g. gamification, interesting learning content and/or didactic means, exchange with other participants, committed trainer, breaks, good catering, etc.) or they can be positive consequences that result from it for the participants (e.g. possibility of direct application of the content in the job, recognition from the supervisor, extra remuneration or goodies). A great activity incentive in a training course is interest in the subject. So, if it is possible, it makes sense to give the participants the choice whether they want to participate. Furthermore, it is important that the participants do not have the feeling that they have something else and possibly more important to do in the same time. The training should therefore be scheduled during daily business and other tasks should be paused at this time.