A First Year Transition project began in 2012 to change the transition experience for all first year, new to University students at the University of Auckland. This was initiated after a survey was conducted by market research company Colmar Brunton, that summarised students’ expectations pre-arrival, and reflected on their experience into University two months later. Along with this, two interns from Bowling University carried out extensive desk research, and identified current University programmes and compared it with best practice in key first year transition areas. The findings from the survey along with the desk research concluded that the University had to take some informed steps to change the experience for incoming students to ensure that they are well informed, and well educated about the University environment. To initiate these changes, it was recommended that a First Year Transition working group be established; comprised of key influencers to promote and advocate this project across the University.

This paper outlines the journey of this project, from forming an online tool for students, to rationalising the use of gamified components, to how gamification has shaped the way other stakeholders around the University are including gamification as part of their services to drive motivation and engagement.

Project background

The University of Auckland is a large research-led institution that spans over six campuses and has approximately 40,000 students. Roughly 13% of its population include international students, while 80% are from various regions around New Zealand. Each year, approximately 5,000 new first year undergraduates enrol with the University.

Various support services and programmes around the University are aimed at providing services to support student engagement and retention. Service operations vary, as either internal to each individual faculty or centrally based such as the UniGuide Programme, that pairs all incoming students with a peer mentor. All of these groups have a vested interest in conveying information to students during Orientation and all compete for students’ attention during this time. Other groups are less focused on issues of first year transition, but arguably place even more value on Orientation because it is their only chance to give students vital information. The previous Orientation Programme spanned a full week, with a range of face-to-face general information and faculty-specific sessions which new students could elect to attend. However, it is estimated that only a third of all first year students attended.

The previous approach raised a number of concerns:

  • Orientation sessions were too long and students felt that most of the information that they received during the week wasn’t relevant to them at the time it was delivered.

  • Messages between various sessions were duplicated and repeated – they didn’t feel information was tailored to their needs (Singh & O’Donoghue, 2004).

  • Students struggled to find information that they needed via the University’s website.

These concerns along with the research conducted, concluded that with ongoing changes to the digital environment, it was essential for the University to introduce an interactive online element of Orientation.

Following the recommendations from the First Year Transition group, and recognising the needs and concerns addressed by commencing students (Lizzio, 2006), the Orientation programme for the university was improved and rolled out at the beginning of 2015. Online Orientation went live, and along with this the format of faculty orientation days changed to include more interactive and engaging one day sessions. Online Orientation comprised of six modules that included information for students that was relevant, timely and available in one platform. The key driver of Online Orientation success was however, the inclusion of interactive/gamified elements within each module.

What is gamification and why include it?

Many scholars note that the learning environment, whether it is school or a university, is gamified in its own respect (Li, Dong, Untch, & Chasteen, 2013). Students attend classes; they are then presented with tests/exams (challenges), which they must complete in order to receive grades (points). If they achieve those grades, they are then allowed to progress through to the following year of studies (level up). It is also well known that many lecturers and tutors use aspects of gamification as part of their teaching method, by including short and interactive quizzes at the end of each learning module. Meanwhile some (where possible) also design their entire coursework around the concept of gamification, in that students complete quests as part of their tests or assignments (Dicheva, Dichev, Agre, & Angelova, 2015) and results are put up on a leader board to see how they are placed in comparison to their peers. Research also supports that gamification is used by many large organisations, including universities, as part of their marketing campaigns to promote desired behaviours from their target customers (Lee & Hammer, 2011).

Students are stakeholders in identifying problems and solutions (Wankel, 2013), and taking this into consideration, a focus group comprised of students that had just completed their first year of University study was conducted to analyse their take on Online Orientation, and what elements of interactive elements they deemed beneficial for new incoming students.

This focus group provided recommendations for the project coordinators to consider including in Online Orientation:

  • An interactive map that will allow students to learn more about the campus environment. New students are able to navigate their way around with the use of mobile maps, but need information around what the campus environment is like, and what services are available in each building/facility.

  • Interactive games/quizzes on support services. Students felt that just reading through a list of services with a definition explaining those services didn’t provide sufficient in-depth information.

  • Include games/quizzes on how to use some of the online tools that students are expected to be aware of, and use in their day to day lives.

Before launching Online Orientation, further work was conducted to ensure elements of gamification are included in each module of Online Orientation. However, we noted that ‘gamification’, while attractive and appealing to students, and increasing the likelihood of repeat visits, doesn’t necessarily result in an enhancement in student learning (L. & Grabowski, 2004). Therefore, it was essential to maintain a good balance between games/quizzes and information in static text.


Game design

While the theory of gamification may be simple, effectively gamifying a concept isn’t. Research suggested that we follow a basic five step process on good game design (Huang & Soman, 2013):

  1. Understanding the target audience and the context: based on University data, we were aware that our target audience for Online Orientation would mainly consist of high-school leavers. Hence it was crucial for us to ensure that each gamified element didn’t take too long for students to complete and that the tone was also student friendly.

  2. Defining learning objectives: what did we want students to accomplish by completing each module of Online Orientation and how will we get them to the end of each module? Keeping this in mind we ensured that the gamified elements allowed students to understand a concept. For example the ‘Email Challenge’ quiz. This was created to allow students to learn how to best manage their University email account, and provided information on how often they should check this account to ensure that they didn’t miss any emails related to their studies.

  3. Structuring the experience: this involved ensuring that timely and immediate feedback is provided to students at the completion of each quiz (Gee, 2008).

  4. Identifying resources: tracking the engagement within each quiz, it was important to analyse the number of students that not only visited each page within Online Orientation but how many of those interacted with the gamified components.

  5. Applying gamification elements: which aspects of Online Orientation do we continue to gamify, and which sections are best fit for another medium?

Initial stages of gamification

During the initial stages, the first elements of gamification that could be launched included the interactive campus maps and simply designed Adobe Captivate quizzes. The campus maps were designed keeping the target audience in mind, ensuring that they were interactive, and included some elements of good game design, such as animation (Dicheva, Dichev, Agre, & Angelova, 2015) and user control over navigation. The quizzes however, although gamified and much simpler in design, complemented the text presented in each module and allowed students to test their knowledge on what they learnt in each particular module (L. & Grabowski, 2004).

Figure 1: Interactive map of City Campus

Other gamified elements were designed to test students’ own knowledge of the new environment they were about to enter. One such example includes the ‘Kiwi as’ quiz that was made available for international students to see how much they were aware of common kiwi slang terms. Not only did this gamified medium allow international students to transition to a new university, but also to a new country. This proved highly effective and was well received by international students as well as the International Office within the University. The International Office reported that they had received feedback from international students stating that they felt more included in conversations, as they were already aware of common kiwi terms.


Google Analytics

The results since the launch of Online Orientation have been pleasing in terms of the number of students accessing the modules. Google Analytics allowed us to analyse detailed statistics about Online Orientation’s traffic and traffic sources.

Figure 2: Data gathered from Google Analytics on number of users accessing each module.

Further analysis was required to review online engagement (Krause & Coates, 2008) and to assess student behaviour on pages that were interactive in comparison to those that contained static text. Analysis of time spent on particular pages revealed that certain content the University thought would be important to new students was not viewed in the same manner by the students themselves.

We also reviewed how well each page was received by students and the average time students spent on those pages. This allowed us to evaluate certain pages’ relevance, review content in those pages, and show our stakeholders that information presented in an interactive way, such as videos, games or quizzes, is well-received by students.

Figure 3: Google analytics analysis on time spent on pages

Learnings from Google analytics and student feedback

Evaluating student experience (Robinson & Hullinger, 2010) of not just Online Orientation as a whole, but also around the gamified components was essential for the University to undertake. Google analytics allowed us to evaluate the quantitative information, but a post launch survey needed to be sent as well, to assess and gather student feedback on their experience of Online Orientation.

At every stage of the change process, gathering and analysing data was critical. In-house research formed the basis of the business case for change, alongside the data capture undertaken by Colmar Brunton. Work was also undertaken to analyse the financial impacts of the change and examine the institutional benefits in terms of student retention.

The student voice was also a powerful driver for changes (Fielding, 2004), with various student groups consulted throughout the project implementation. While the results of student consultation provided useful data, the First Year Transition group was also mindful of the concerns around implications that the group often has one “voice” and that a “monolingual assumption is illusory” (Robinson & Taylor, 2007, p. 6).

Common feedback and trends that emerged from the post survey and Google Analytics were taken into consideration.

  • Ensure that there is a good balance between, videos, static text, and gamified elements.

  • Test usability of games on all mobile devices (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). Feedback suggested that some students had difficulty accessing the Adobe Captivate quizzes on their mobile devices. This is urging us to consider moving all quizzes and games out of Captivate and into HTML instead. Although this increases cost for the University, it does however ensure that the students who are motivated to access the online material are not disappointed by technological errors.

  • Engage in house support around creating gamified elements. ‘The Email Challenge’ quiz was created by one of the University’s Computer Science lecturers and some of his students. This quiz proved highly successful as it was created by students for students.

Gamification support to other departments within the University

Following the success of Online Orientation, many other departments within the University approached the First Year Transition Group to investigate how certain elements within their services could also be gamified. Meanwhile other Support Services wanted to utilise the gamified elements already in Online Orientation to support the services they were providing or to ‘nudge’ students towards certain behaviour (Desouza & Smith, 2016; Desouza & Smith, 2016).

  • The Schools Partnership Office is now using the interactive campus maps during their High school presentations. This medium allows students to click through various hotspots around the University and learn what’s on offer. This has proven successful for the team, and can be seen as a method to increase revenue for the University as prospective students are more engaged with the University (McGonigal, 2011).

  • An interactive financial literacy quiz was added to Online Orientation to increase students’ knowledge about financial management (Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen, 2009). This has since been included in the University’s central website.


The term gamification is new, especially to the education sector, but the concept of gamification has been around for many years (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011). It is clear that the implementation of Online Orientation has largely uncovered the problems stated earlier in this report. Faculty Orientation attendance is up, interaction with the Online Orientation resource is high and feedback from students is encouraging. Similarly, staff who engage with students during their transition report that there is an improvement in the levels of preparedness in the first weeks of the semester. Furthermore, the nature of questions being asked at the University’s Student Information Centres and call centre are well thought out, reflecting a smoother transition for some students.

Gamified components within Online Orientation have been a success factor behind the online tool, and enabled others within the University to consider gamification where possible. But this raises further challenges as we continue to expand gamification within Online Orientation and in other support service areas.

Considering that good game design is imperative to the success of all gamified materials (MacMillian, 2011), it is crucial that we continue to develop meaningful games/quizzes that engage students and also deliver the key messages from the University.

It is also known that with all blended learning initiatives it is difficult to say with any certainty whether online learning contributes to better student success at University (Lizzio, 2006). More work is required to better understand the connections between technology, the student experience and student outcomes (Robinson & Hullinger, 2010).


This paper has explored how Online Orientation and the inclusion of gamification within modules has shaped the way we look at student transition, and how it was used to enhance Online Orientation further. Survey results and Google Analytics both echo that students are more absorbed in pages that are gamified over pages that contain text.

As Online Orientation continues to be embedded into the students’ transition experience, work continues to make the resource accessible, relevant and engaging. One of the challenges for the institution is to take key content which does not necessarily lend itself to gamification and find innovative ways to present it. We note that while gamification is clearly desirable – and even expected among large sections of the student community, the challenge for the institution is to gauge whether this has true learning benefits for all.

The author may be contacted:
Vandana Minhas-Taneja


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