Gamifying the on-boarding of PGT students

This HEFCE Catalyst funded project focusses on a critical time in the life of a taught research postgraduate (PGT) –  when they are making the transition into higher education. At this time, students must negotiate an academic identity and develop the independent study skills required to participate fully in the University community of practice (Tobbell et al. 2010). Barnacle (2005) stresses the complexity of this process for research postgraduates and observes that too often the environment(s) provided by universities are not necessarily facilitative to this transition, either by design or implementation. This project is an attempt to change this.

Aims and Objectives – This catalyst project will develop and evaluate the use of gamification in an online induction course aimed at PGT students. It will seek answers to the questions
Can the use of a gamified approach:

  • foster higher levels of intrinsic motivation?
  • lead to greater engagement with the materials?
  • increase the completion rate relative to the non-gamification route?

Gamification is defined here as “using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning and solve problems” (Kapp, 2012).  We have already seen from a successful internally-funded undergraduate transitions project that many of our students are keen to engage with online “transition” materials pre-arrival – 68% in 2015 and 75% in 2016 actively participating.  Previous studies suggest that gamification techniques can increase motivation, time spent accessing and interacting with the materials and also interacting with other students on the course (e.g. Landers & Callan 2011; Leong & Luo 2011; Werbach & Johnson 2012). Examples of “gamified” activities include students arranging themselves into teams – to introduce an element of competition; dashboards displaying the latest activity in the course; progress bars, levels and leader boards; multiple routes of completion (i.e. choice of assessment); badging to recognise student achievement and indicate tasks yet to be completed. Note that not all these methods may be applicable to PGT students.

Topics to be covered in the courses have been identified using focus groups held with current PGT students (held in November 2016). It is anticipated that these may include digital literacy, time management, research skills, academic integrity, disciplinary identity as well as the more traditional ‘orientation topics’ – familiarisation with facilities and services available across campus. Money and staff been secured for the development of the “traditional” online course through internal competition –from the 2016-17 round of Durham University’s Enhancing the Student Learning Experience award scheme (see

This catalyst-funded project will develop a parallel course covering the same topics and using many of the same materials, but with a radically different method of delivery and progression.  The focus of the catalyst project is on the design and evaluation of the gamified components.

All 2,500 incoming PGT students were offered these online courses. Participants were given the choice of the traditional online course or the new gamified one.

Working with students we have developed a gamified interface for the course. More will be published shortly but here is a sneak peak at the interface currently live in production

Here is a copy of a recent presentation about this project given in Manchester:


Barnacle, R (2005) “Research education ontologies: exploring doctoral becoming” Higher Education Research and Development, 24(2) pp 179-188.Kapp, KM (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. John Wiley & Sons.

Landers, R & Callan, R (2011) “Casual social games as serious games: The psychology of gamification in undergraduate education and employee training” pp 399-424 in Oikonomou, M & Jain, LC (eds) Serious games and edutainment applications. Springer, Surrey.

Leong, B & Luo, Y (2011) “Application of game mechanics to improve student engagement” In Proceedings of International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education doi:

Tobbell, J, O’Donnell, V and Zammit, M (2010) “Exploring transition to postgraduate study: shifting identities in interaction with communities, practice and participation”, British Educational Research Journal, 36 (2), pp 261-278.

Werbach, K & Johnson, S (2012) “Gamifying the classroom” BizEd 11(6) –52-53.

Photo Credit: David Grandmougin