The Pros and Cons of Gamifying Test Prep

It's-ah Me! SAT Prep!

The best video games are brilliant psychological devices. They draw players into captivating fictional settings with a combination of short-term and long-term goals to conquer. What lessons can we draw from the success of the multi-billion dollar video game industry? What are the potential pitfalls when applying those lessons to test prep?

Achieving the short-term goals (like leveling up, unlocking a new skill, or reaching the next checkpoint) gives the player a repeating cycle of positive feelings like success and achievement. These small victories are what keep players playing on their way towards a game’s larger objectives (like defeating a boss or completing the game).

Odds are, if you’ve played a video game in the last three decades, this makes some sense to you. But since studies suggest that an overwhelming majority of today’s kids are playing video games, this pursuit of game-based rewards is engrained much more deeply within our students.

Today’s Complex Games Lead to Complex Engagement

It is important to note that the video games our students have grown up with employ these multifaceted, goal-based design elements on a much more profound level than the arcade and Nintendo games played by their parents’ generations.

For instance, while I can fire up my original copy of Super Mario Bros. and be in heaven, my students are firing up Super Mario Maker and challenging each other to beat levels they designed themselves. 

I remember staying up one night in college and beating the Legend of Zelda in a marathon 4-hour session (oh, college…). By comparison, the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, has over 80 hours of content to experience. The difference in complexity is massive.

In order to engage with these significantly more intricate game experiences, today’s kids have developed the ability to juggle multiple digital objectives at the same time. Educators are starting to harness this experience. 

The Gamification of Education

The concept of gamification has continued to gain momentum in the education world. “Gamified” learning environments dress up academic tasks with fun, attainable short-term goals in order to build student interest and motivation in pursuit of the larger learning objectives.

It makes sense; kids understand the language and psychology of games, so educators are seeking to capitalize on the potential in-road. In some cases, the concept has been taken as far as flipping entire classroom workflows to mirror video games-style progressions.

When it comes to test prep, however, too much gamification may actually do more harm than good. Before you go all in on gamifying your test prep curriculum, consider these pros and cons:

Why the Gamification of Test Prep Works


The number one appeal to gamification is it uses a student’s interest as a motivational tool. Let’s be honest; test prep can be boring. Any way to spice up the experience for both students and tutors can lead to notable increases in engagement which, in turn, could lead to improved test performance.

Finding a creative way to treat test practice like a series of missions that must be completed en route to a larger objective may help students commit more fully to their test preparation. Furthermore, the series of psychological boosts from a sequence of smaller successes could lead to an increase in confidence when test day arrives.

Game lingo is more enticing than test prep lingo

Some students would certainly be more engaged in the course if their work were structured as a series of challenging yet attainable “quests” that must be completed in pursuit of defeating the “end-boss.” It may seem silly, but by creatively repackaging the materials you are already using into a more playful, video-game like structure, you may be able to draw more effort out of your students. Some of the anxiety associated with testing may even be reduced by reframing the test prep experience into a more gamified package. 

Why the Gamification of Test Prep Doesn’t Work

The “final boss” is still a test

No matter how fun and engaging you can make the test prep experience for your students, one truth cannot be escaped: the end goal is still achieving actual success on an actual test.

It is important to remember that one of the most significant challenges students need help with in a test prep course is actually the test itself. Engaging with examples of a test’s structures and formats ahead of time is the only real way to be prepared for them. Over-gamifying content at the expense of giving students authentic practice can be a disservice.

Quality test prep content and structured practice still matter the most

If your test prep content itself is weak, gamification is like lipstick on a pig. Consider whether your students are showing a lack of success and a lack of engagement simply because of your tutoring approaches, or if your test prep materials are actually to blame.

By employing a high quality, 100% custom branded test prep system like those provided by Clear Choice Test Prep, you set your students up for the highest degrees of success. Through our multi-faceted approach, we help you provide your students with engaging, multimedia-infused instruction that will lead directly to improved test performance. For more information, book a quick software demo and we'll show you all the great tools for tutors we've developed.

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Overcomplicating the test prep process

For those of us in the test prep world, testing dates are always front and center. When it comes to preparing students, there are only so many sessions and only so much time available to help a student enter their testing center fully prepared for success. If the trappings of gamification are eating up valuable instructional time, your students aren’t being served.


In the end, there’s no denying that gamification, when executed properly, can be a great way to boost student motivation and engagement in certain contexts. That said, test prep is a unique endeavor compared to other types of learning. Improving student performance on standardized tests is often a function of preparing the student to thrive under testing conditions. As a result, it's essential to simulate those conditions during the time the student spends completing the coursework. 

There is no reason to doubt that some degree of gamification could make a positive impact on test prep students; but straying too far from proven strategies and materials that help students engage with very specific testing content and conditions could be detrimental to student performance and, in turn, your future business.

Do you have experience with gamifying test prep? What has worked for you and your students? What hasn't? Please take a moment to share your experience with us in the comments section. And as always, please like, share, and subscribe. Thanks!

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Matt McCorkle