How Social Media & Game Mechanics Can Motivate Students

education imagePatrick Supanc is the President of College and Career Readiness at Pearson, where he focuses on new market development, digital innovation and product strategy. He has been a teacher in Indonesia, an education policy adviser at the World Bank and UN, and led K-12 market development at Blackboard.

Social media and online games have the potential to convey 21st century skills that aren’t necessarily part of school curricula — things like time management, leadership, teamwork and creative problem solving that will prepare teens for success in college and beyond. Making the transition between a highly structured environment in high school to a self-driven, unstructured environment in college can prove a huge challenge for many kids.

Educators spend a lot of time thinking about how to fix this problem. The solution doesn’t lie solely with games, but a lot of the psychology that motivates teens to play games holds potential. We need to figure out how to tap in.

The Status Update and Checkins

If teens feel empowered to broadcast a goal via a status update to a group of their peers, it becomes more real. Other people see it, comment on it, and offer positive reinforcement. That same strategy could be used for academic goals like performing well on tests. Closed networks can help students reach for educational goals and ask for help. These kinds of networks can be a great way for kids to know they’re not alone, and shouldn’t be ashamed to seek assistance.

In a similar way, checkins don’t necessarily have to be location-based. People check in because they’re driven toward some kind of status or reward. Teachers, parents, and students can start using checkins to monitor time management skills, show the progress of a student over time, and drive toward very specific goals (or rewards). Think of a network where a teen could check in to a certain class or subject. Updates like “Christina just checked into quadratic equations” could show her peers what she’s working on, encourage participation, and allow others working on a similar subject matter to pitch in.


As anyone who grew up in the video game generation would know, leaderboards are an incredibly strong motivator. They’re surprisingly underused in education, considering their simplicity and that they’re completely powered by participants’ desires to do better.

Many students are motivated by friendly competition. They are also driven by the need to compare themselves to others. Leaderboards can foster this in a healthy way and encourage people to try harder with little incentive other than positive recognition. Why not set up a school-wide, inter-school or even nationwide leaderboard, similar to what Nike+ did to make an otherwise potentially mundane activity (running) fun?

Leveling Up

Game mechanics can be built into daunting coursework to help students understand complex problems. Anything that naturally has a step-by-step, logical process (like math, for example) can be easily converted to a game that uses levels to convey a sense of achievement along the way. This is called a “progression dynamic.”

Games are great for delivering relevant feedback in the form of a mission, level, quest or objective. The best games are just hard enough to keep users interested but offer enough frequent and positive feedback to make sure participants are having fun.

Social media and games have an incredible power to keep us engaged and connected. We’re probably a bit far from a future where kids say, “I can’t stop learning,” rather than “Five more minutes on my Xbox 360.” But understanding the psychology of games and applying it to the way kids learn can help us break down persistent challenges. And, we might just have some fun along the way.

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Image courtesy of Flickr, smemon87