In a recent post I talked about including fun or more serious activities in class. I suggested that some fun activities, such as running dictations, could be less effective than similar alternatives. In this post I’m continuing on from this starting point. The idea of gamifying activities has been around for a while. I’m looking at the opposite; how degamification may benefit your classes.

The basic idea behind gamification is that people enjoy games, so by making class activities more competitive, students will be more engaged. The idea of adding fun to classes makes them more beneficial. I believe there is a place for this approach, but we need to be aware of the effects it may have on our classes. Competitive games can be dominated by a few students; the best linguistically, the most confident or the most extrovert. You can sometimes see students standing back among the noise of their loudly participating classmates. The noise makes the activity feel successful, but could the quieter students be encourage to participate more with other dynamics?

To explore this question I’ll talk about my experiences with one of the most popular language games, hot seat/backs to the board. I first saw this as a trainee teacher. Brilliant, I thought, it’s so easy to set up and use to recycle language. My students enjoyed it and I continued to use it in my teaching. After a while I started to notice some students were quieter than I wanted them to be. Participation was never equal. I wondered if there was a solution to this. I’d have a maximum of four students per team tried to position students closer to each other.  This can help but in classes I taught with 20 students, it became harder to monitor and control effectively. I found that even this couldn’t allow for all students to contribute equally. I moved on to an extreme of two per team. I had classes of twenty with ten backs to the board. I definitely felt there was more engagement from quieter students, but someone would always get the answer almost immediately, as well as being really hard to referee. The game element diminished. Consequently I’d put more words on the board, so students would need to define a few before finishing. This made sure everyone had time to explain some words before someone would shout ‘finished’. I still think hot seat is a good game, but one I’m never truly satisfied with.

One of my alternatives to the game is using word cards. Students pick up a card and explain the word/phrase on it. I have a set of cards including the same language I’d use in hot seat. The language used to explain and complete the activity is similar to hot seat, but without the frantic nature it seems more authentic. In real life conversations speakers compensate for linguistic gaps by explaining the meaning, but without the wild gestures and mad rush which hot seat encourages. In this set up I find all students have the chance to speak. I can monitor more effectively to see which words were problematic, or which students struggled with the lexical set. The cards allow for extension in an easier way, for example by prompted students to personalise the language. Earlier finishers can be prompted to do more tasks like that with the language, which helps set differentiated tasks for groups with mixed abilities. With this dynamic I’m always satisfied with the activity.

Am I suggesting we all ditch hot seat? No, many students enjoy it, as well as it helping to consolidate their knowledge. However, using a degamified version can be more beneficial. My suggestion is to try both and ask your students which they find the most useful. You’ll get different answers from different groups. I’m a believer in giving students the chance to reflect on their learning and feedback into activity selection. Are there any popular games you degamify?

Image CCO Public Domain from


14 thoughts on “Degamification

  1. Love it, David. You make a very good point that gamifying everything can exclude some students, often the ones who need most practice. And you’ve made up a new word, which is always a bonus.
    I’ve always felt a bit unsure about gamification, ever since I first heard about it, and you’ve articulated what’s been going on in the back of my mind – thanks!


  2. Great piece, David – and I so agree with you that sometimes learners really need time to just ‘think’ about what they’re doing and why and not simply ‘do’ as is often the case with games. As for the terminology – never liked ‘gamification’ to begin with – I tend to be suspicious of new buzzwords that really mean nothing new, on the other hand, I love the idea of ‘degamifying’.


  3. This is an excellent discussion, David. When there is so much talk about ‘technology’ revolutionising the classroom, it can be and to get swept up in the momentum, instead of sitting back and thinking about providing a range of different opportunities for our students – some that may go against the current trends, so thank you for starting that discussion.

    In my role as high school teacher in Australia, I was often asked ‘is your school an Apple school or a Microsoft school’. This made me uneasy. The discussion should start with learning aims and pedagogy, and not the commercial tool. Particularly in recent times it has become more important for educators to look at the claims made about the impact of resources/devices/apps/games, etc, and note that many are made by commercial enterprises, and are not backed up by rigorous research.

    I’ve been thinking about a blog post I found online some time ago, with a title something like ’10 studies that prove ipads are great for students learning’. It’s produced by a tech consultancy firm, and the use of the term ‘study’ is used very loosely. It’s been on the list of things to write about on my own blog for a while, and you’ve inspired me to go ahead and do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. Please share your blog post when you’ve written it too. I agree with you about the starting point. Aims and student needs are much more important than activity types. Once we’re clear about where we want to go, we can select how we get there. Use of technology and games are options, but not the only way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the post David! “Gamification” is becoming one of those terms that includes so much that it becomes vague.
    The gamification that many people are trying to implement in both online and classroom education is focused more on “leveling up” like in a video game (google something like “gamification education level up”). The idea is that there are clear rewards (experience points, “leveling up”, badges, titles, etc.) for learning new things or completing tasks. This cool stuff provides some extrinsic motivation for students to improve.
    With that kind of gamification, students are competing with themselves to get better, rather than competing against other classmates.
    I think the competitive games you talk about in your post can be useful for some groups of students, but you’re right – they often leave some students out.


    1. Thanks for the comment Kristian. I realise there is a distinction games and gamification. I’ve used gamify to mean adding elements of computer games, rather than making the whole class resemble a game.


  5. Great discussion, David! You make a really good point here – not all games are equally successful in the classroom in terms of learning. Making content more playful (aka gamification) can be a great way to engage students and add diversity to classroom activities, however, the time and effort should be justified in terms of gains in learning for each and every student. My approach is that games should be used as a means to an end, rather than for their own sake. Whenever there’s a more learning rich tool/option, I’d go for it. I wrote a short blog post on the use of games some time ago. Hope you find it interesting.


  6. The aim is: as many as possible using and improving their language. So, if that is with a game, I’ll use that, but if not, I’ll use something else. Thanks for your thoughts, and I love the label ‘degamification’.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some really good points. It reminds me of my experience using Quizlet for revising vocabulary. At the beginning I thought the games were great. Really motivating. But then I started to think that I’m actually not revising the words, but trying to get a higher score. Also, since the quicker you were, the more points you’d get usually, it didn’t give you time to think and process the words.
    Perhaps like with many other things in ELT (e.g. L1 use) we tend to fall from one extreme to the other. But as with everything, keeping a balance will be probably much better.
    BTW, thanks for putting the TEFL Equity badge on your site. I really appreciate it.


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