Gamification is getting a lot of press these days, with promises of great improvements in learning. And while companies are citing successful employee engagement in gamifed learning, the real question is whether gamification itself is a recipe for learning success, or is it just one ingredient?

Let’s define “learning success”

To answer that question, you need to first define what learning success is. In a corporate environment, learning success is the ability for employees to operationalize their learning, that is, to successfully apply knowledge and skills for improved job performance.

For years, organizations have been trying to find the perfect recipe for successful learning. Sadly, our traditional recipes have been a bit like a soufflé: they look good starting out, but somewhere along the line they fall flat.

Gamification isn’t the recipe we’ve been looking for either. But it is one key ingredient to achieving corporate learning success. And by mixing it with two other key ingredients, gamification can become an incredibly effective contributor to learning outcomes and one that should be in every learning-cook’s pantry (Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Keep this card in your recipe box!

Ingredient #1: Personalization

According to the US Department of Education, personalization refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. (See References at the end of this article.) This is in direct contrast to our traditional methods of corporate learning, which serve up the same information to all learners.

In eLearning, personalization is often combined with adaptive learning, which modifies learning content based on the learner’s success, always challenging and moving the learner towards subject mastery. This combination has a substantial impact on learning, because of several key elements:

  • Relevance to the job. When employees understand how the knowledge and skills apply to their job, their motivation to learn will increase.
  • Relevance to the employee. If the learner expects the content to be personally useful, motivation to learn will be increased. Conversely, when adults are forced to learn something they believe is irrelevant, the resulting resentment can become a barrier to meaningful learning.
  • Addresses gaps in knowledge. It’s far more effective to deliver learning that addresses specific gaps in knowledge, especially if they’ve been identified as important for improved job performance.
  • Meets the needs of generational and culturally diverse employees. With as many as four generations and multiple cultures in the workplace, learning that can accommodate these differences will be far more effective.

According to Chad McIntosh, VP of loss prevention and risk management at Bloomingdales, “We have four different generations in Bloomingdales—33 percent of which are millennials—so personalization is a huge factor for engaging our employees in learning. We’ve seen knowledge lifts of up to 20 percent in some subjects, and have achieved a dramatic decrease in preventable safety claims.”

Ingredient #2: Brain science

Of all the developments in brain research over the past 10 years, there are three key cognitive strategies that can have the largest impact on the way we deliver corporate learning.

The spacing effect

Also known as interval reinforcement, the drip approach, or distributed practice, the spacing effect states that long-term retention of information is better when it is repeatedly presented with specific time gaps between each repetition. This is in direct contrast to cramming, which involves studying large amounts of data continuously over a short time period.

Many companies implement short bursts of learning for as little as five minutes a day, to continuously reinforce prior learning, or to deliver new learning. Repetition improves retention of the information learned, and long-term retention is strengthened as spacing between repetitions increases over time.

According to John Knoble, worldwide director of learning at Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson, being able to continuously reinforce major learning events to drive product knowledge—every day—has fundamentally changed the effectiveness of knowledge delivery to their sales professionals. “Not only are we seeing gratifying knowledge lifts, but we’ve found the sales reps’ knowledge confidence increases, which is significant when it comes to selling our products.”

Retrieval practice

Also known as the “testing effect,” retrieval practice provides a quick learning chunk followed by recall testing, a refresh of the knowledge, and another recall test. Research has proven that retrieval practice produces superior learning over conventional study methods; and has demonstrated that the act of retrieving information from memory—even as few as two times—actually produces a memory trace that is resistant to forgetting.

Many companies implement retrieval practice as a daily Q&A program, consisting of a short series of questions—often between two and five per day. When a question is successfully answered, the employee moves on to new material. If the answer is incorrect, the employee gets the correct answer and will be periodically asked again until they master the material.

Confidence-based learning

Research by Dr. James Bruno, a professor of education at UCLA, has shown that it’s the combination of knowledge plus confidence that leads to appropriate behavior and empowers people to act—critical in areas like decision-making skills, safe machine operation, and crisis intervention.

Based on a two-dimensional assessment model, confidence-based learning asks employees to rate their confidence in the correctness of their answer. This helps employees more carefully consider their answer and confidence in their knowledge, contributing to a deeper learning experience. But it also gives the company key insight into areas that they should focus on to help employees achieve true mastery of knowledge and skills.

Ingredient #3: Gamification

We believe that gamification is the “secret sauce” in the eLearning recipe: It uses all of the best attributes of games that bring out personal qualities such as people’s natural desire for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, and closure. Its most important contribution, though, is its ability to engage people in the learning process, and have them wanting more. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this.

  • Everyone loves games. In fact, 67 percent of American households play computer or video games—and while 26 percent of those are over the age of 50, it’s the 74 percent under age 50 that are moving into the workforce with their strong preference for games. (See References at the end of this article.)
  • Gamification boosts achievement, and encourages employees to become achievers. People enjoy competition—whether against themselves or others—and gamified elements such leaderboards for peer recognition, or points systems for tangible rewards feed into the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that drive people to participate.
  • Gamification encourages people to seek knowledge. Many of the games people routinely play require them to obtain knowledge, which helps condition them to the same approach in a gamified learning environment, especially if there are rewards involved.
  • Gamification encourages perseverance. In a traditional training environment, poor test scores are often demotivating. When playing games though, people routinely experience failure and understand that if they keep trying, they will eventually succeed. They bring that attitude into a gamified learning environment, and keep persevering even if test scores are not as good as they would like.

JD Dillon, director of learning technology and development at Kaplan Higher Education Group, explains what they’ve achieved with gamified learning, “…incorporating game elements are what really makes learning go viral in the workplace. Seventy percent of our learners opt-in to play a game during every session. Afterwards, you can find them in our internal social site sharing their scores and challenging one another to get better. People are voluntarily taking five minutes out of their already busy day to improve their knowledge and having fun doing it. That’s a winning combo!”


US Department of Education. National Education Technology Plan 2010. Found online 20 August 2014.

Entertainment Software Rating Board.