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Why (and How) to Gamify Any Course

Public health professor Dr. Denise Rizzolo shares basics on 2 engaging games—plus 7 tips for other educators who are ready to play game-show host.


Denise Rizzolo, PhD, PA-C

Assistant Clinical Professor, Physician Assistant Studies; Director of the Completion Program, Pace University in New York City

PhD in Health Science with a specialization in Leadership Theory, MS in Physician Assistant Studies, BS in Exercise Science

Denise Rizzolo, PhD, teaches prospective physician assistants at Pace University in New York City. A few years ago, she was at an education conference where a lecturer led the audience in a mock game of Jeopardy! The category? Oral pathology. The crowd, Rizzolo included, loved it. Putting her idea in the form of a question, she asked herself, “Why not try this with my students?”

It seemed like the perfect solution to a problem that had been puzzling her. Rizzolo had noticed that traditional teaching methods taught content knowledge but did not give students practice in interacting with others or in thinking critically in a fast-paced environment. And both of those skills are vital in the medical profession.

“When I recognized that straight PowerPoint lectures weren’t engaging my students, I realized I needed to bring a technique to the classroom that they’d like,” she says. “And what do they like? Games. And as much as games, they like competition, specifically competition that revolves around learning.”

Today, Rizzolo uses two games in her Introduction to Public Health course. One is a modified version of the Jeopardy!-style game she played at the conference, and the other is a debate-style game in which students need to provide on-the-spot defense for a position that she supplies them. Here is a quick look at some of the details—and her advice on how to bring successful game play into your own class.


“I don’t have a background as a gamer, but when I recognized that straight PowerPoint lectures weren’t engaging my students, I realized I needed to bring a technique to the classroom that they’d like. And what do they like? Games. And as much as games, they like competition, specifically competition that revolves around learning.”

— Denise Rizzolo, PhD

Course: HED 3635 Introduction to Public Health

Course description: Exploration of the overall public health system in the United States, prevention, planning, and organization of community health problems and programs.




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2 engaging games for public health class

Here is a quick look at the two games Rizzolo uses in her Introduction to Public Health course. She notes that it is possible to cover all of the material that students must learn in a course in one of these fun and interactive formats.

The quiz show approach

For this Jeopardy!-style game, Rizzolo creates a PowerPoint slide deck, following the format of the popular television version—with categories and answers that require participants to formulate their responses in the form of a question. She downloads templates straight from the Internet (search online for Jeopardy! templates—many are available, and most are free) and modifies them to meet the needs of her class. For each unit, she selects several categories, then creates a series of questions for each category and plugs in an answer that will pop up under each dollar tile when she clicks it.

When it is time to play, she projects the image onto a screen at the front of the classroom, students make selections and give responses, and she serves as the de facto game-show host, reading the questions and tallying the fake dollar amounts for each participant.

The game invariably leads to a broader discussion, and that is where Rizzolo sees the true value of this exercise.

The debate-style approach

Here, Rizzolo picks a sensitive topic (it cannot be one with an obvious correct or incorrect response) and divides the classroom in half. One half will debate the “pro” side of the argument (e.g., “Everyone deserves universal healthcare”), and the other half will present the opposing viewpoint.

The groups have 20 to 30 minutes to develop their arguments, using course materials. Rizzolo selects one group to go first and present the first few sentences of their argument. Then the other group takes to the front of the class to refute what the first debater said. The back-and-forth continues as students dive into more specific aspects of each viewpoint.

7 tips for effective use of games in class

Rizzolo offers a few tips for teachers looking to create their own games to help with student learning.

1. Do a test run

“Preparation is key,” Rizzolo says. When you first create the game, she suggests taking extra time to thoroughly review the format and contents. Ask yourself, “Have I included all the salient course material? Have I matched the game’s focus to the course’s focus?” You may even want to have some colleagues or teaching assistants play it through to see whether it needs any final tweaks.

2. Build knowledge and rapport first

“Don’t tell students about the games until you feel the class is ready to engage,” says Rizzolo. In other words, they need to understand the material, be settled in, and get comfortable with each other—and you—before you let the games begin.

3. Set some ground rules

Rizzolo adds that having and abiding by ground rules is essential to the games’ effectiveness. “I emphasize ‘having mutual respect’ and ‘agreeing to disagree’ as two very basic and essential ground rules,” she says. “Also make it clear up front that participation is mandatory.”

4. Have a Plan B

Sometimes tech will not work or a game does not go as planned. Do a little “risk assessment” beforehand, and try to consider what to do if a problem arises. For example, with the debates, Rizzolo offers this advice: “If at any point discussions get too heated or students seem to be moving off track, be ready to redirect them or consider changing gears to a new topic.” Only once did she need to stop the debate altogether, when one student’s religious beliefs led to a vehement disagreement about receiving essential medical care, such as a blood transfusion.

5. Play games every other class (at most)

Rizzolo warns against overusing this approach. “It will get old,” she says. “I intersperse the games throughout the semester so they are looked upon as fun and surprising.” She does not tell the students ahead of time when the next game will be, so that she keeps the “surprise factor” in play.

6. Offer fun (but inexpensive) prizes

To make the games more competitive, Rizzolo rewards the winners of each game with various prizes, which she pays for out of her own pocket. “It’s worth it to me, since the students actually participate,” she says. The prizes do not have to be costly, she adds: It is just the idea of winning something that motivates the students.

7. Make sure everyone is a winner

Winning vs. losing in the Jeopardy!-style game is clear. But what about the debates? While she says that usually one argument is clearly stronger (meaning that side will score more points and prevail), she does not want any student to feel “less than,” so Rizzolo purposefully does not use a rubric for those.

“My goal with these games is to facilitate critical thinking and force students to think outside the box,” she adds. “And I want students to have fun while doing it.”

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