Why gamification? Not just fun, games spark deeper learning experiences.

Too often, eLearning courses rely on rote memorization – a passive tell/test approach. First, delivering content. Then, asking Learners to prove that they’ve remembered what they’ve read by responding to questions. It’s not necessarily a measure of understanding. Memorization, yes. But, deeper learning, no.

What does it mean to learn?

Educational psychologist Richard Mayer defines cognitive learning as a change in knowledge due to experience, suggesting that:
1. Learning involves a change.
2. The change is in what the Learner knows.
3. The change is caused by the Learner’s experience.

What is deeper learning?

Psychologist Benjamin Bloom proposed a hierarchy of six verb classifications associated with cognition/knowledge. In learning communities, “Bloom’s Taxonomy” is used to classify cognitive behaviours as they progress in difficulty. Lower levels are simpler, requiring less thinking. Higher levels are more complex, requiring higher levels of thinking. To know a subject deeply involves going beyond the surface level. It suggests higher-order thinking. Understanding a subject intimately, drawing meaning from it, making connections, and applying the concepts in challenging, real-world situations. 

I don’t understand how to demonstrate my “understanding” of this subject.

How does one demonstrate knowing, understanding, realizing, becoming aware of, or appreciating, within a learning context. Difficult, right? Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful guide for creating specific and measurable learning objectives – the key behaviours that stakeholders want Learners to demonstrate – the desired and observable outcomes evidenced as a result of the learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy supports the design of robust learning activities, involving higher levels of thinking. By design, Learners are provided a means to practice, reinforce, and demonstrate achievement of each learning objective. Ideally, their current proficiency is matched with progressively challenging activities.

Did you notice: Learners are more actively engaged with higher cognitive levels and passively with lower levels. Likewise, design strategies will be more or less interactive according to hierarchy. Where time and budget allows, deeper learning opportunities are most ideal. So how do we do it? With experience.

What is the Experiential Learning Cycle?

In 1984, American educational theorist David Kolb proposed that deeper learning involves an experiential component. His theory, called the “Experiential Learning Cycle”,  indicates four related events in which we:

1.  Experience: receive information through an experience.

2.  Observe/Reflect: make sense or meaning of the information.

3.  Think: create new assumptions and ideas related to the information.

4.  Act: actively test our assumptions and ideas.

James Zull, (author of The Art of Changing the Brain and From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education), explains how Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle activates multiple areas of the brain, resulting in deeper learning. Explore the following interaction to interpret his findings:

Pick my brain.

Select each section of the brain to view its function.

Pick my brain.
Pareital Lobe Occipital Lobe Cerebellum Brain Stem Temporal Lobe Frontal Lobe

Pareital Lobe

The pareital lobe is associated with academic skills, math calculations, reading and writing. Additionally, the sensory cortices receive information such as:

  • sense of touch, taste, and smell
  • spatial perception
  • visual perception

In terms of Kolb's experiential learning cycle, this relates to experience.

Occipital Lobe

The occipital lobe is associated with:

  • visual perception
  • visual interpretation
  • reading


The cerebellum is associated with coordination, balance, and equilibrium.

Brain Stem

The brain stem is associated with:

  • sense of balance
  • reflexes
  • breathing
  • digestion
  • swallowing
  • consciousness
  • temperature
  • alertness

Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe makes sense of information. This area of the brain is associated with:

  • understanding language
  • organization and sequencing
  • information retrieval
  • musical awareness
  • memory
  • hearing
  • learning
  • feelings

Relating to Kolb's experiential learning cycle, it means reflection.

Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobe creates new ideas related to information. For example, the frontal lobe is associated with:

  • problem solving
  • judgement
  • inhibition
  • personality
  • emotional traits
  • language production
  • motor planning

This aligns with the thinking aspect of Kolb's experiential learning cycle. The motor cortex, a part of the frontal lobe near the parietal lobe actively tests new ideas. This relates to the acting aspect of the experiential learning cycle.

Gamification provides opportunity for whole brain learning.

Gamification provides the practice environment for Learners to move through each stage of the Experiential Learning Cycle. In a virtual setting, Learners can encounter a variety of realistic situations, from which they can develop assumptions, actively test their assumptions through decision-making, and experience realistic consequences.

Game-based learning is:

  • Active, rather than passive.
  • Goal-focused, reinforcing specific behaviours.
  • Encouraging of experimentation and practice.
  • Engaging, multi-sensory, experiential learning.
  • Dope! That is, dopamine releasing.
  • Conducive to deeper learning.

Deeper learning activates more areas of the brain. More areas of the brain are activated when learning is experiential. Gamification is experiential learning.